Housing Chronically Homeless Women

Review by: S. Cussen

Rae Bridgman

Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter For Homeless Women


Safe Haven is a modern ethnography that explores the issue of chronic homelessness in Toronto. Rae Bridgman conducted four years of fieldwork in the Savard shelter. During her time there she analyzing the layout of the building, contributing to a floor plan that helped the women feel comfortable, safe, and not controlled. Bridgman takes field notes of what each women does so the reader can analyze the changes in activity day to day, sometimes sleeping all day or running into trouble outside of the shelter before their return back to safety. Maintaining a clean environment in the shelter is difficult as the women are concerned about loosing their belongings, the shelter develops individual nooks for the women to keep themselves and their belongings safe while not being cornered, as many were victims of domestic abuse. Most of the women suffer from mental illness or are an ethnic minority, the shelter does not aim to pester them with pills rather positively encouraging them to take their medication and creating valuable relationships. The staffs of the shelter are approachable and genuinely care for the women. “The book speaks about the hopes, dreams, and fears of the women I met during the research. These are women who have survived the streets. These are women who have worked for years in the city’s shelters and drop-ins. These are women who have worked together to built a safe haven for homeless women. (Bridgman, 1999:3)


Safe Haven is a good ethnography, although it is not written in a form that fits the “typical” ethnographic style. An ethnography commonly requires fieldwork and Bridgman ensures the reader feels as if they are alongside her during this time. Her fieldwork experience is described in detail using various forms of writing; at times she includes her personal notes in unique forms such as a poem. This unique style attracts the reader’s attention and helps the reader understand what she was experiencing. Like many modern ethnographies there is not much emphasize put in the use of third person. Bridgman openly uses personal pronouns and it helps the reader visualize the situation being discussed. Bridgman is a new face in the Savard shelter so its necessary she describes her actions in order to better understands the women’s actions towards her. Generalizations are made about the women using the Savard shelter followed by specific examples of specific women. The reader is able to understand the general findings and then understand how Bridgman arrived at this through specific examples of different women. Jargon can make an ethnography either very good or very poor if overused. I Safe Haven uses an sufficient amount of jargon that does not confuse the common reader as Bridgman ensures the terms are explained. believe Bridgman used the perfect amount of jargon to appeal to her very diverse readership.

In my opinion Bridgman has written Safe Haven with the characteristics of a good student ethnography. A good student ethnography is one that provides the reader with an appropriate level of knowledge while continuing to engage them. The writing style must contain some jargon but ensure the terms are explained with the use of a glossary, notes, or directly in the text. Due to non-jargon heavy writing style, Bridgman writes at an appropriate level for a student readership.


The diverse readership of Safe Haven extends to various groups including, students, government employees, and anyone with an interest in services provided to homeless women in Toronto. Government employees would benefit from reading this ethnography as they can gain an in depth understanding of where exactly the funding they are providing is being used. The Savard shelter design required a carefully planned floor plan as Bridgman describes. It is crucial the women using the space have their private space that is mobile and easy to clean. The women additionally are given an allowance to help them achieve a more stable living situation and Bridgman ensures the readers understanding how this money is being regulated. Government employees would benefit from reading this ethnography as it is not overly ethnographic and provides adequate amount of detail for their professional research. Individuals with a general interest in the problem of homelessness in Toronto would benefit from this ethnography as it directly describes how homeless women are found of the street and what methods are used to encourage them to stay in the shelter. For anyone looking to help homeless women this ethnography is a great tool of reference to help understand what issues exist at the shelter level.

Safe Haven opens the reader’s eyes to the problem of chronic homelessness not only in Toronto but across Canada. It expands the reader’s knowledge past just seeing homeless women on the street to understanding how she got in that position and what kinds of aid are available. Commonly individuals are aware that shelters exist but don’t know about what struggles come along with them. The way to help homeless people is not to simply provide them a bed but to work with them to obtain a more permanent living situation. This ethnography shows what issues the homeless women faced to become homeless and what aid has not been provided to them. It alters the reader’s perception of homeless women. Safe haven has the potential to broaden conversations around chronic homelessness. Bridgman often discusses how the women arrived where they are most often attributing it to mental illness. Uncovering how women became homeless contributes to efforts trying to prevent women from becoming homeless. What health care is lacking that is leading these women to this lifestyle and how can the government provide them with the support to keep them off the streets.

Academic Book Reviews

Review by Sharon Ferguson-Hood and Marie Tovell Walker

Limited information about the reviews exists however it easy to find various book reviews they have completed so it is evident they have a rich background in this work. The authors describe the layout of the book noting that “At first it seems to read like a textbook: but when one becomes accustomed to reading over parentheses, page numbers, authors’ names and numerous quotes the story transcends its presentation and captures the reader’s attention.” (Ferguson-Hood & Tovell, 2003) This understanding of the novel confirms its readership and validity as an ethnography for students as well as the general public.

Review by Daphne Spain

Daphne Spain is a member of the department of urban and Environment Planning and the University of Virginia. This background confirms Spain has a good understanding of planning for the future of the Savard shelter. Her critique of the ethnography was its “primary focus on the staff, almost to the exclusion of homeless women, despite Bridgman’s attempt to include all voices.” (Spain, 2004) I disagree with this critique as Bridgman provided an adequate amount of information about these women without invading their privacy and exposing their identities. Personally as I read the ethnography I was trying to determine if one of the women mentioned was one I had previously seen asking for money near the Eaton center in Toronto. These women are already oppressed and do not need their personal characteristics or habits exposed. Bridgmans focus on the staff helped plan for the future of not only the Savard shelter but homeless women across Canada and what aid they need to find a permanent housing situation.


Ferguson-Hood, S., & Marie, T. W. (2006). Safe Haven: The Story Of A Shelter For Homeless Women. Canadian Woman Studies, 25(1), 210.

Spain, Daphne. 2004. “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 13 (2): 378-380.

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

Word Count: 1226


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