Down, but Not Out: Marginalized Women Living Homeless

Review by: Keeley MacCuish

Rae Bridgman

Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter For Homeless Women


Safe Haven is an ethnography that tells the stories of marginalized women in Toronto who are living their lives categorized as chronically homeless, literally homeless, episodically homeless, and single. Rae Bridgeman uses this ethnography as a way to share the stories of homeless women who are struggling to not fall between the cracks of the “intersecting economic, legal, gendered and aesthetic domains of the permanently housed” (Flynn, 2011). Each woman who we follow throughout this ethnography have their own unique stories and struggles that they are dealing with, and Bridgeman does a great job at expressing them in an unbiased and impartial approach. Bridgeman is following women who are in and out of Savard’s, a shelter for women, but what is unique about this shelter is the lack of rules and guidelines that it puts in place. While most shelters have numerous rules and regulations to abide to. The only rules at Savard’s are no weapons or any kind of violence, and no drugs or alcohol. There is no curfew at Savard’s, leaving it up to the women themselves to get to and from the shelter. Women in the shelter are not forced to take any kind of drugs, regardless of what they are prescribed, and extra help is only given if directly asked or implied, ensuring that the workers and those utilizing the shelter are on a common ground. “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). Having workers there at all times ensures that there is always access to help if it is needed. Bridgman also includes day-to-day staff logs which highlight each individual woman’s activities of the day. We are able to see changes in the residents’ lives as well as get an insight to how they view the world. This is especially useful as we can understand the thought process of those who are in the shelter. Throughout this story, Bridgeman uses a utopian and feminist critique, hoping that all the women that she comes into contact with will utilize the resources that are available to them. In Toronto alone, there are an estimated 6000 people that are living life homeless. To put that into perspective, the population of Antigonish is 4400, meaning that there are more people living homeless in the GTA than there is living in our university town.



Overall, a good student ethnography should be useful in its theory, and preferably focused on one culture in order to maintain the attention of the reader. While some student ethnographies use jargon throughout, I believe that it is best if the jargon is limited in order to ensure a smooth read with maximal understanding on the topic. Bridgeman is also very unobtrusive in her research. She ensures that she does not affect the occupants of Savard’s, staying in the background and not writing notes as she goes, as that may skew the way that the women act. Naturalistic observation is a huge asset in an ethnography, especially one surrounding people who are marginalized or stereotyped, as they are accustomed to having the act differently around an authority figure. Safe Haven has great characteristics of a student ethnography- it uses simplified words choice without the use of added jargon. If there is any use of jargon, she does a good job of defining exactly what she is referencing. There is plenty of researcher engagement and discussions in order to grasp the attention of younger readers. A good example of this is the entirety of chapter 2, which Bridgeman uses the actual field notes that she took while studying these women. This enables us to look into the lives of not only the women staying at the shelter, but I glance inside the thought process of Bridgeman throughout her observations. She focuses on day-to-day life, ensuring that she continues to represent these women in all of their endeavours, while using a native point of view, telling the stories of these women from not only her own perspective, but from the workers of Savard’s along with the occupants themselves.


This ethnography would be a read for anybody, given its simplified writing style and subject matter of great interest. As a student, I believe that this story is a great way to begin your shift into more academic ethnographies. Similar to Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden, Bridgeman’s story has a rhythmic flow, similar to a novel, making it easy to read and understand. The use of flow throughout a student ethnography is a very important factor as it enables the readers to continuously understand the subject matter that is at hand, as opposed to having to stop periodically to read back in order to grasp what the author is laying out. Safe Haven would also benefit those who are looking to further their understanding of homelessness, as it gives simple and direct observations and conclusions. With the stereotype surrounding mental illness and homelessness, it is important that there are works of writing that demonstrate an unprejudiced look into the lives of these marginalized women. Government employees and other social sciences would also benefit from reading this ethnography as it is not overly ethnographic and provides an adequate amount of details regarding populations that you typically cannot get feedback from. “Implementation studies are useful for exposing tensions between the preferences and perceptions of ‘users,’ ‘clients/ or ‘consumers,’ and agency staff, and for exploring organizational, policy, and funding constraints and shifts” (Bridgeman, 7). This ethnography administers me with a greater insight on homeless women, and homelessness in general. As it tends to be a taboo subject to speak about, and is typically not discusses in a positive manner, it is refreshing to have a take on homelessness from an unbiased, positive perspective. This ethnography can contribute to the studies of homelessness and as I previously mentioned, help to destigmatize mental health and homeless. Having an understanding of what these women face on a day-to-day basis enables us to further our research and devise solutions to the problem of homelessness in cities.


Review by Daphne Spain

Daphne spain did an excellent job at acknowledging the work that Bridgeman put into her ethnography, and the effects it will have on the future of homeless women. she is writing from the perspective of urban research, meaning that she is concerned with the future of urban populations and what we can do as a whole to fix the issue at hand. As she states, this is a story of the most marginal of the marginalized- homeless women of an array of ethnicities, sexualities, abilibty and mental state. These are all stereotypical adversities that further the stigma surround marginalized women. Rae Bridgeman’s take on the story of these women will hopefully open the eyes of those still buying into the negative portrayal of marginalized women. While many shelters for the homeless are more concerned with “fixing” the homeless, Savard’s is, just as the title of this writing states, a “safe haven” for those who need it. Instead of criticizing the women, the workers at Savard’s give these women the opportunity to make the most out of the situation that they are in.

Review by Karen Flynn

Karen Flynn, an assistant professor of Anthropology, studies food, poverty, and homelessness. throughout her critique, she talks of the importance of ensuring that all the women at Savard’s have adequate health care. upon entering Savard’s there is no background information asked, which is where most homeless shelters miss out on opportunities to help those who need it. Forcing people to open up about their most likely traumatizing past is what makes homeless people decide that they would rather live on the streets than tell their story. By not pressuring the occupants of Savard’s to open up, and supplying them with the resources that they need to help themselves, they are helping to get these women off the street, and potentially saving their lives at the same time. While many of the women who enter Savard’s do not utilize the resources that are given to them, simply have a safe place to be able to openly discuss their issues enables the women to come to terms with their past, which many of them blame their homelessness on.


Word Count: 1444

Works Cited:

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

Bridgman, Rae. “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003

Spain, Daphne. Book Review. “Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women” Canadian Journal of Urban Research





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