Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women


Safe Haven is an ethnography which summarizes the fieldwork urban anthropologist Rae Bridgman completed in a homeless shelter in the city of Toronto. This particular kind of ethnography seems to be important for today as homelessness is a problem which seems to remain persistent with small efforts in altering this reality. The fieldwork in the particular shelter where Bridgeman completed her work was unique from most as it was an all-women labored and occupied shelter. In the first chapter of her ethnography titled introduction, Bridgman speaks of her goal of sharing her research in ethnographic form being sharing the hopes and dreams of the women in the homeless shelter but also exposing the efforts made by the staff to create a safe haven for women who have endured struggle in their lives so far (Bridgeman, 2003).

It is clear that after five years of direct participant observation, Bridgman has a clear understanding of what goes on in Savard’s, the homeless shelter. She accurately depicts in the eight chapters of her ethnography several underlying topics which help demonstrate her main proposition and provides the definition of what constitutes a chronically homeless person, the problems of mental illness and previous physical and emotional abuse homeless women have withstood, the long struggle Savard’s had in becoming a homeless shelter, the deciding of becoming a shelter with little intervention and rule policies, the impact Savard’s had in women’s lives in truly becoming a safe haven and finally, the inauguration of a larger shelter which now receives its funding from the Ministry of health.

Through intricate chapters which are clearly labeled in regards to their subject matter, Bridgeman paints a clear depiction of the struggles homeless women sustain and therefore highlights why a shelter like Savard’s is so important. Bridgman dedicates most of her ethnography to the women she met in her fieldwork. She frameworks the importance of the day to day lives of the residents of Savard’s as she dedicates a chapter solely to her log books of each resident. She also speaks of the workers in such high terms as she elaborates on their long shifts working in the shelter and the meetings where they decided how to construct a true safe haven, where Savard’s can become more like a home with the decision for staff to be less involved in the lives of the residents. This ethnography is a true contribution to the utopianism and feminist critiques of existing social order (Bridgeman 2003).


Characteristics and Readership

Ethnographies targeted for student readership are ultimately for learning on a particular subject manner. Bridgeman gives a clear depiction of homelessness as a whole by using the common denominator people, but also breaks this “rule” in her ethnography. Bridgman often supplies the reader  with a name of the resident and their daily observed activity, by doing this the author supplies more insight in what characterizes a chronically homeless women and this information can be used to educate any particular reader of the ethnography. Her interaction with staff members and the residents is clearly indicated which contributes a more informative depiction of her fieldwork in her ethnography.

Student readership for an ethnography is characterized by formalizing the ethnography so it adheres to an identifiable interest. Often, ethnographies derived for student readership will have some topics which have been simplified with little appearance of jargon, making the ethnography easier to read where it can be used as more of an educational source. Safe Haven seems to adhere to the qualities of the student readership. The ethnography is short in length, maintaining the interest of the reader throughout. Safe Haven also adheres to another critical quality of a student readership ethnography that being that the chapters are clearly labeled and each of these chapters begin with a clear description of what the section will be about, giving the reader direction in their reading. This ethnography is beneficial for students as the education of everyday issues is imperative, and homelessness is a extremely prevalent issue in today’s society.

Rae Bridgeman’s ethnography regarding Savard’s in Toronto is also a beneficial read for other social sciences as well as government officials or program administers. The ethnography outlines issues of poverty and how these problems have remained prevalent throughout Bridgman’s years of fieldwork. This ethnography can educate other professionals to heighten their concern on the matter and come up with solutions much like the employees of Savard’s have. Other social sciences professionals would benefit from reading this ethnography as their own knowledge could be critical in helping the women of Savard’s as well as homeless people in other cities where the poverty is a transparent issue. Government and program administrators could benefit from reading this as it speaks of a story of how the homeless shelter came to be, the problems of gaining funding and awareness, and the great lengths of improvement Savard’s has made in the conclusion of the ethnography. Government and program administrators could feel inspired from Bridgman’s words to open up shelters in more cities for more circumstances of homelessness.

External Academic Reviews

When conferring external reviews regarding Bridgman’s ethnography, it is clear that this ethnography was beneficial for the feminist and urban anthropology field as many reviews speak of the importance of her ethnographic interpretation of her fieldwork at Savard’s. Sylvia Novac writes a positive review for Bridgman’s work in the Canadian based magazine Women and Environments, speaking of the writings vivid perception and characterizes the work inversely from traditional ethnographic writing. Novac begins her review by summarizing the settlement of the Savard’s project as well as the amenities within the shelter. She frames the unique environment the shelter provided and how each nook was characterized for the individual which differs immensely from the traditional homeless shelter environment. Novac speaks insightfully of the fundamental dilemmas that arose in the staff as they were trying to improve the women’s quality of life (Novac 2004).

The author speaks of Bridgman’s work as a masterful ethnographic discovery particularly in the chapter where her fieldwork notes were exposed where she spoke of the women’s everyday routines. Finally, Novac reinforces Bridgman’s important contribution to feminist anthropology as she states, “Bridgeman masterfully reveals the complexity of translating a feminist service philosophy into a reality and documents the pressures and shifts that tempered the service during its first few years of existence” (Novac 2004).

Karen Cohen Flynn, a professor of anthropology at the University of Akron, speaks confidently of Bridgman’s work in her review for a website dedicated to feminist anthropology. Flynn describes the importance of the ethnography through her description of the struggle mentally ill homeless women endure in a large city. She elaborates on Bridgman’s point of women having a harder time finding a place to temporarily live as they are often unable to stay at a place with men in presence based on previous traumatizing life experiences. Flynn speaks of the ethnographies focus on the action and space of the shelter, rather than the problem of homelessness as a whole, although Bridgman’s knowledge on the matter is expressed throughout (Flynn 2011). The professor speaks of the influence this ethnography has had and the appreciation it has received from activists and publicists (Flynn 2011). Flynn also speaks of the works importance on those working in any similar situation to that of Savard’s, underlining its significance. It is clear that although this review was written years after the publication of Safe Haven, that Bridgman’s novel has left its mark on the feminist anthropology field and will remain to for years to come as homelessness sustains in being an apparent concern.


Word Count: 1271

Works Cited

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

Coen Flynn, Karen. “Safe Haven: The Story Of A Shelter For Homeless Women.” Association for Feminist Anthropology. August 8, 2011.

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


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