Summary of the Ethnography

Safe Haven is an ethnography written by Rae Bridgman that is based upon her field research on chronically homeless women located in Toronto, Canada. Her focus of study is a “feminist based alternative shelter” (Brown 267) that has implemented a unique program for hard to house mentally ill homeless women in the area. The shelter is unique because of its non-intervention, zero eviction, and few rule policies. “Savard’s low-demand, high-support mandate requires staff be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to provide flexible, individualized support” (Bridgman 130). Unlike most shelters of its time, the staff do not judge, interfere with the women’s daily lives, or insist that they seek some form of help. Rather, they simply implement a few fundamental rules for safety reasons such as no drugs or weapons on the premises. By doing so, the staff are aiming to gain genuine, trusting relationships with the women to ensure they feel safe, secure, and welcome. Bridgman describes this phenomenon by saying “Residents are encouraged by staff to keep doctor’s appointments, to take medication if this has been prescribed for them, and to attend to their personal care and hygiene, but the responsibility for these activities rests with the women themselves” (130).  The ultimate goal of the center is “that many women will want to move on to more independent forms of housing, after a period of stabilization in a high-support environment” (Bridgman 130). Each of the chapters of Safe Haven are equally unique and effective. In the second chapter, Bridgman describes her experience alongside two outreach workers where they attempt to meet and create connections with women on the streets. She describes this experience as challenging due to the amount of patience involved while gaining the trust of the women. The following chapters portray the complex amount of planning and decision making that was involved in the creation of Savard’s. Bridgman includes dialogue from the meetings that took place which gives us a unique inside view in the planning process. In chapter 4, Bridgman seeks to portray the daily life at Savard’s by including entries written by the staff in daily logbooks. In the seventh chapter, Bridgman depicts the modifications made within the program which included changes in funding, administration, and staff. A main motive for the changes was the pressing concern of whether or not the non-intervention style shelter was aiding or hindering the chronically ill women. In the final chapter, Bridgman assess the experiences of three separate women who were able to “stabilize their lives” (Brown 268).

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Evaluation of the Ethnography

The main question I am posing in this essay is whether or not Safe Haven should be considered a good student ethnography. In order to answer this question, I must define what characteristics make up a good student ethnography. Personally, I believe that the primary factor in creating a well put together ethnography is the ability of the ethnographer to identify and engage with the target audience. Although Marcus and Cushman may disagree with what I am about to say, I believe in order to engage with a student targeted audience, the author must limit the use of jargon and overly scientific language. In my personal experience, the over usage of jargon results in students either becoming confused or skimming the ethnography and missing important material. Furthermore, I would like to stress the importance of limiting the length of the ethnography. In order to hold the attention of a student reader, I believe it is essential that the ethnographer is able to include the maximum amount of information in the most condensed version possible. In other words, clarity and conciseness are extremely important factors in a well put together student ethnography. Although simplified language, clarity and condensed material are important factors, they must not infringe on the quality of the ethnography. This can create a difficult balance for ethnographers. The task of creating an easy to read yet respectable ethnography can be difficult. In my opinion, Bridgman was able to achieve this with her ethnography Safe Haven. Ferguson-Hood and Walker agree with my opinion in their review by saying “It is only 140 pages long, but in that length Bridgman manages to present the players, the politics, the initial visions and the practical reality. Her ability to cover these various aspects and perspectives gives her the account credibility. It presents as an honest account” (210). Continuing on my description of the characteristics of a good student ethnography, I would like to add the importance of interesting and captivating material. To hold the attention of the reader, the ethnography must engage with a story that is equally true as it is intriguing. It must instill a long-lasting impression within the reader while completely avoiding compromising the facts and reality of those being observed and recorded. Novac notes Bridgman’s ability to do this by saying “Her use of ethnographic techniques provides the reader with a sense of immediacy, of almost being there oneself to experience critical and revealing moments as she witnessed them”. The techniques used by Bridgman allows the creation of a unique relationship between the reader and the women. It allows for a sense of connection and deep empathy for the women, which is something that the general public tends to lack whilst concerning the mentally ill and chronically homeless. This ethnography, in my opinion, is a perfect stepping stone for students interested in the fields of anthropology and sociology. It introduces students to the dedication involved in performing extensive fieldwork, as well as challenging them to think critically about real life situations.

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Safe Haven and its Contribution to Literature

“Safe Haven is an important contribution to the literature on strategies to address homelessness.” (Janovicek 282). I agree with Janovicek for several reasons. Primarily, I think that Safe Haven provides a perspective that is different than most similar studies. Due to the fact that the model of Savard’s is extremely different than most homeless shelters, Safe Haven is able to contribute a rare insight into the lives of chronically homeless women. The material that Bridgman covers is highly applicable to real world issues and studies. Although the study was conducted in the late 1990’s, homelessness is a problem that persists in present day life. Not only is homelessness a widely-misunderstood problem, mental illness is equally as misconceived and wrongly addressed. There is a wide misconception that those who are homeless and/or mentally ill are lazy and are unwilling or undeserving of our help and sympathy. This misconception has created an unfortunate circumstance for many people in Canada and around the globe. “Bridgman, by her absence of political posturing, challenges us to look at our assumptions and questions our complicity in all kinds of systemic oppression (Ferguson-Hood and Walker 210). By saying this, Ferguson-Hood and Walker address the way Bridgman challenges the reader to think critically of the homeless and mentally ill, and the ways in which we contribute to their ongoing oppression and suffering. Bridgman says “the research highlights the difficulty of planning to accommodate the needs of a segment of society’s most marginalized groups- chronically homeless mentally ill women” (130). She explains extensively the difficultly involved in sustaining shelters such as Savard’s. There is often lack of funding, and a high staff turn over rate which results in a group of people with inconsistent working philosophy and a lack of stability and trust that is crucial for the women. Although Bridgman provides a well thought out and concise description of the benefits as well as difficulties in sustaining a center such as Savard’s, she fails to provide a workable solution to the problems presented. Brown elaborates on my analysis by saying “Unfortunately, this concluding chapter falls short of providing a well-developed analysis of the rich qualitative data reported throughout the book. Only 10 pages are reserved to review lessons learned and the discussion is more descriptive than analytical. No recommendations for ‘‘best practice’’ strategies for serving chronically homeless women are provided and the author proposes no clear direction for future research.” (271). Therefore, my conclusion on Safe Haven is that although Bridgman delivers information that will provide crucial data for literature surrounding homelessness, she fails to provide any solutions to the problem at hand.


Bridgman, Rae. Safe Haven: the story of a shelter for homeless women. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Brown, Karin Elliot . “Book Reviews.” Cities 21, no. 3 (2004): 267-71.

Ferguson-Hood, Sharon, and Marie Tovell Walker. “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women.” Canadian Woman Studies 25 (2006): 210.

Janovicek, Nancy. “Reviewed Work(s): Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women by Rae Bridgman.” Labor/ Le Travail 54 (2004): 282-84.

Novac, Sylvia. 2004. Book Review. Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless women. Women & Environments.

Word Count: 1361


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