Safe Haven: The Story of an Experimental Alternative to a Traditional Women’s Shelter’s

Rae Bridgman’s “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women” is an informative, insightful stake on traditional style of a normal ethnography. As the title may imply, the ethnography tells the “life history (and contemporary state) of Savard’s, a shelter for chronically homeless women” (pg. 2) located in the downtown region of Toronto, Ontario.  The Women’s Street Survivor Project, the project that came to known as Savard’s, is the main area of focus which Rae Bridgman studies throughout this book. Named after Diane Savard, a homeless women turned community worker, Savard’s poses as a ‘safe haven’ that attempts to cater to women who are “chronically homeless”; a term which Bridgman defines as “older, middle aged homeless woman who have severe mental health problems”, along with younger homeless women who may be undiagnosed. (pg. 5) Through fieldwork conducted by Bridgman on the streets of Toronto with Outreach workers, accounts from residents and staff of Savard’s, and related studies conducted by fellow anthropologists, Rae Bridgeman paints the picture of the issues facing not only the homeless, but those attempting to offer help to those who may be skeptical of institutional aid, and the obstacles faced when attempting to fund, design, and construct shelters. Past efforts from other homeless shelter projects, some more successful than others, are reviewed in order to highlight these difficulties.

“The political, economic, and policy contexts” (p 127) in which projects arise are also assessed as factors which affect the outcome of projects such as Savard’s are too acknowledged with great importance throughout the ethnography, shedding light on some of the intangible forces of society and politics that make or break efforts to bring “services” to those in need.  Projects such as the Woman of Hope Project show how simple prejudice from the neighbouring communities can be the demise of a homeless shelter. (pg. 52) Bridgman also emphasizes the importance of creating these projects with the homeless in mind, making an effort to maintain that focus as the projects materialize. Concepts like “Home, Hotel, or Hostel” are introduced by Bridgman to illustrate the potential ways people can view the shelter which they reside in. Rae Bridgman effectively portrays Savard’s as an overall success, as many women have chosen to stay due to the way which Savard’s, and concurrently Bridgman, feel a ‘Safe Haven’ should base its principles on.

Overall, the ethnography reads well for a student audience, despite it being somewhat dry at times. Bridgman approaches her portrayal of her fieldwork in an interesting manner while maintaining the credibility of an ethnography, supporting first-hand accounts with literature and theories from other ethnographers. In her discussions of chronic homelessness, Bridgman refers to other definitions provided by authors to further support her research while still refraining from excessive jargon. In chapter 3, for instance, Bridgeman offers accounts from staff members, deriving key issues or concepts and supporting the validity of these accounts with references to other anthropological work (pg.34) In regards to the use of language in the book, Bridgman does a good job in including the terminology common amongst workers and Poetry found in chapter two offers a unique description of the homeless, while the rest of the chapter offers a focus on the day to day activities of outreach workers and the women they help. Additionally, Bridgman often focuses on specific individuals in attempts to make a correlation with a bigger picture, such as the focus on those in the log book, providing a segment of the comings and goings of the different homeless women living in Savard’s and potentially homeless shelters around Toronto. It is important that an ethnography provides credible and accurate insight into the demographic of situation being studied, something which Rae Bridgman achieves throughout “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women”.

The writing style, while interesting, does at some points become monotonous. Parts of the ethnography discussing theory, or the architectural design of the women’s shelters, while important to the overall ethnography, unfortunately become dull in contrast to writings of her outreach work as Bridgman makes an effort to tie them into a story. Over all, the audience for this ethnography is more so the scholarly demographic, however Safe Haven could also cater to an audience simply interested in the topic of the chronically homeless and the problems surrounding homeless shelters. The stories told themselves definitely alter one’s perspective on the situations and realities which are faced by homeless people in their own cities and in some cases shows the unfortunate gap between social action and government reaction. Bridgeman incorporates real life experience with scholarly knowledge in a way which is easy to understand while still maintaining credibility in the findings of her ethnography.

Rae Bridgman’s “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women” has been subject to several reviews prior to this one. In a review of the ethnography done by Sylvia Novac, Novac describes the ethnography as a “vivid description of the conception, birth, and early life of an “experimental alternative” to the street or traditional shelters”. (Novac, S. 2004) Sylvia goes on to point out the interesting style which Bridgman chooses to display her research in, pointing to the log book used in the Come Inside chapter. (Novac, S. 2004) Another brief review of Bridgman’s “Safe Haven” acknowledges how the book “reads like a how-to book for organizing a homeless shelter”, and while this may not be the book’s intent, Bridgman does in fact offer a great set of guidelines which provide valuable insight to social workers and project designers of similar projects. (Wolfer, L. 2004) Furthermore, a review of the book by Caren Flynn, Flynn suggests this be “required reading for anyone involved with welfare, housing and health and human services policymaking.” (Flynn, C. 2004).

In conclusion, Rae Bridgman’s “Safe Haven” is an excellent, well-written ethnography of the homeless women in the metropolitan regions of Canada and the social, economic, and political forces which impede both outreach workers and the “chronically homeless” as they attempt to provide much more than just a shelter for the homeless. The ethnography provides a reader with an educational but interesting read as the writing itself is distinct and unique but still informative. Bridgman, as a result, not only offers a unique perspective and inside look on a small but significant project in the city of Toronto, but into the everyday lives of the homeless around the world.


Word Count:  1070



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

Marton, Christine. Book Review. Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless women. The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology/ Revue canadienne de sociologie et d’anthropologie, 2004.

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

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



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