Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women


Summary of the Ethnography

The ethnography Safe Haven is based upon fieldwork done by Rae Bridgman, that focuses on women and homelessness. More specifically, it is about the shelter Savard’s, for chronically homeless women in Toronto. In her own words, the book speaks about “the hopes, dreams, and fears of the women [she] met during [her] research” (Bridgman, 1). This is achieved through the informal conversations, eating meals, or watching television with the women over the several months she was present in the shelter. The safe haven shelter has targeted the women who are seen as “hard-to-serve”, most often times being mentally ill. It is intended as a place where individuals can stay in an environment where there is high support from staff, low demand, and surprisingly, unlimited in how long they can stay. Thus giving women an opportunity to move at their own pace onto other independent housing options, or to permanently reside in the shelter. The shelter has principles where there are, as Bridgman describes, “no expectations placed on the women to change, and Savard’s was to offer a flexible, non-judgmental, low-demand atmosphere and structure” (6). This is distinctive from other shelters because they are often times not as flexible, having limited time periods that women can stay, and specific protocols that must be upheld such as proper hygiene, satisfactory behavior, and taking their medication.

One of her more interesting findings throughout her fieldwork is that many women who lived at Savard’s “chose” to live on the streets after prior experiences with the homeless shelter system in Toronto. A women named Susan was evicted from a homeless shelter because the staff was concerned about her mental and physical health, but did not feel as though they could provide any more help to her. She was then hospitalized but left before any of her health concerns were resolved. Since staying at Savard’s, the staff realized that she had a serious illness. Treatment was then started, and Susan was informed and educated about her illness. Susan stayed in the environment provided by Savard’s because she no longer felt degraded and powerless like she once did in her prior shelter. This example clearly demonstrates the power of the Safe Haven and the importance of upholding its principles in order to help chronically homeless women in need.

Safe Haven ultimately outlines the value in Bridgman’s in-depth ethnographic research in recording the initiatives taken when improving chronic homelessness for women. She does this by outlining and understanding the struggles and barriers that impede on the development of effective shelters, and what can be done to enhance homeless women’s quality of life.


Evaluation of the Ethnography

Since I am a student myself, the main question I was asking throughout reading this ethnography was whether or not Safe Haven should be considered good for students. In class we have talked about what Marcus and Cushman argue are the key characteristics of ethnographic realism, but not all of these coincide with what makes up a good student ethnography. Marcus and Cushman put a strong emphasis on the use of scientific jargon to gain authority and prove expertise. Although, this is not true when talking about student ethnographies. Instead, student ethnographies should be highly simplified in order to gain complete understanding. Another important factor is the length of the ethnography. Although I do believe it is important, like Marcus and Cushman say, to give a complete description of another culture or society, it is also important to limit the amount of pages present. This is because you want to hold the attention of students. Bridgman does a good job at both of these things by writing Safe Haven like, as Wolfer says, a “how-to book” that is “very readable and informative” (2004).

Another characteristic Marcus and Cushman believe to be important is the unobtrusive presence of the ethnographer in the text through third person. This is not true when talking about student ethnographies. Personally, I find it much more enjoyable reading when I can connect with the author and their experiences on a personal level when they are present as an individual throughout the text. Bridgman does a good job at following Marcus and Cushman’s guidelines by being invisible and omniscient when outlining the processes in which Savard’s operates, but she also incorporates herself into the conversations and experiences she had with the women. Marcus and Cushman present the idea of common denominator people, leaving individuals out to ensure a more legitimate focus. By doing this, it creates a disconnection between the fieldwork and ethnographic generalization which tends to make the tone drier. In a student ethnography, it is important for the ethnographer to have individual’s experiences present, in order for people to connect with the text on a deeper level. Throughout Bridgman’s writing, she spends a vast majority of the time talking about the women present in the shelter as a whole. Even though she does outline some specific individual’s experiences, I personally think that it would be much more interesting if she incorporated more of their stories. Since we have also read Brody’s ethnography, I found myself making comparisons while reading Safe Haven. In Brody, he is constantly talking about his own experiences that he had with the culture, making it seem more like a novel. This style is much more appealing to me being as a student, I am more interested in reading material that has flow to it and does not seem as broken up.

Overall, I think Safe Haven is a good student ethnography that is very easy to follow, but did lack some minor aspects that could potentially hold student’s attention longer.

Contribution to Broader Conversations

As mentioned above, a good audience for this ethnography would be students. Brown (2004) agrees with this statement and says that it is good for “students of sociology, anthropology and social work”. Another audience that would benefit from this ethnography is area specialists. As Brown (2004) discusses, it is valuable to “ethnographic researchers, who are interested in glimpsing the challenges and excitement of long-term fieldwork and qualitative research.”

Flynn presents the idea that Safe Haven should be a “required reading for anyone involved with welfare, housing and health and human services policymaking.” She also explains that it has made an important contribution to the development of the literature not only on homelessness, but Non governmental organizations as well (2004).

More importantly, as Bridgman describes, Safe Haven is written for those who “want to learn more about the work being done to help homeless women – who live in our very midst. The hope is that Savard’s will inspire other initiatives to help women street survivors.” (13). The research done will contribute to the implementation process by demonstrating the methods and models in which the safe haven operates, and the degree to which it has been successful and unsuccessful in certain departments. This is important because many publications that are already present pertaining to housing solutions, typically do not illustrate how they actually evolved over time. By outlining barriers and the step by step implementation process, it gives the opportunity for housing solutions such as Savard’s, to be applied in other places.

Word Count: 1195

Review by: Alley Goodreau


Brown, Karin Elliott. 2004. Book Review. Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women. Cities 21(3): 267-268.

Flynn, Karen Coen. 2004. Book Review. Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women. Association for Feminist Anthropology.

Wolfer, L. 2004. Book Review. Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women. CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 41(9)[May]:1746.




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