Safe Haven: A Unique Approach to Chronically Homeless Women in Urban Centers

Contents of Safe Haven

Using a five-year participant-observation study, as well as numerous interviews and staff records, author Rae Bridgeman provides a detailed insight on chronically homeless women and the unique housing model of Savard’s shelter in downtown Toronto. The ethnography details the history and innovations of the shelter along with the perspectives of the women who live and work at Savard’s.

The shelter is distinct among homeless sanctuaries because of their vision, which includes a zero-eviction policy, and a non-interventionist attitude, which allows for chronically homeless women to come and go as they please. Basic rues are established for the safety of residents and workers alike although it is the principle belief that the few policies at Savard’s foster genuine, trusting relations between all women at the shelter. In addition to this, women in the transitional home are under no expectation to take their medication or treatment. Women working at the shelter would encourage such activities although it is a principle belief that the women would return to the street if they were forced against their will into any treatment. Bridgeman immediately outlines these policies in the ethnographies introduction; There are very few rules at Savard’s. Weapons, violence and the use of drugs or alcohol on the premises are not permitted. There are no curfews. Women are not required to take medication unless they choose. Referrals to other services are made only when a women has indicated interest herself in taking action”(Bridgeman, 2003).

Bridgeman addresses two major questions within the following chapters; what makes a woman chronically homeless, and how is outreach conducted towards the most marginalized women in Toronto. Bridgeman uses first hand accounts and fragments from her field notes to give an insight into the process of reaching out to chronically homeless women and the failures that come with it. She outlines the struggles of finding women who do not always want to be found in the downtown streets of Toronto. In addition to this the author provides an understanding of what makes women chronically homeless and the unique issues associated with housing women who do not always to be cared for.

Bridgeman continues the ethnography by explaining the means as to which a vision formed into the unique transitional housing model of Savard’s. Using discussions from Women Street Survivors Resource Group, the ethnographer chronicles the initial planning and decision-making processes that went into the establishment of the shelter. Bridgeman proceeds to discuss the consideration, which was taken in the design and layout of the shelter. A lack of space and privacy provided challenges, which had to be adequately dealt with during construction.

Rae Bridgeman’s ethnography is an inside look into a unique and modern approach to chronically homeless women in downtown urban centers. The book centers around the women who make this vision possible as well as the women who choose to adopt the unconventional housing method of Savard’s shelter.

Critical Evaluation of Safe Haven

An assessment of Rae Bridgeman’s Safe Haven based on the characteristics of a ‘realist ethnography’ would suggest a poorly written book due to Bridgeman’s difference in writing style. The success of Safe Haven is in fact based on the unordinary writing style of the author. One of the many differences within the ethnography is Bridgeman’s inclusion of self. This creates the authority necessary for the audience to believe that the conversations and situations Bridgeman is explaining are accurate as told. In addition to this, Bridgeman’s use of personal notes and findings allows for the reader to understand the major themes of the ethnography expressed through her personal accounts.

Another major aspect of Bridgeman’s Safe Haven that differs from traditional ethnographies is her inclusion of specific experiences within the book. Often times this is avoided within ethnographies although in this case the individual experiences add to the audiences generalized view of chronically homeless women and the struggles and successes of Savard’s. The ‘‘ethnography in action’’ theme reveals the culture of shelter life at Savard’s through the use of passages from fieldnotes, informal interviews with residents, staff, administrators and other service providers” (Brown 2004). The numerous individual experiences shared by Bridgeman within Safe Haven is the “ethnography in action theme” which Karin Brown refers to. Interviews with front-line workers and personal notes from outreach programs are a few of the numerous first-hand accounts, which make this ethnography an interesting read.

One of the few traditional ethnographic characteristics which is evident in Safe Haven surrounds the focus on everyday life. “A compilation of staff log notes offers a compelling ‘fly on the wall’ record of daily life at Savard’s. Snatches of daily doings of the residents and their interactions with each other and with the staff evolve into a dramatic narrative“(Novac 2004). The interactions that Bridgeman highlights coupled with the prior context, which the reader is aware of make for interesting day-to-day occurrences at the shelter. The various resources used by Rae Bridgeman in the ethnography all have a focus on the daily life, which helps to paint a generalized view in the mind of the audience.

All factors considering this is a fantastic read for an ethnography student audience of all interests. Rae Bridgeman uses some traditional ethnographic characteristics but effectively opts to exclude numerous qualities in the best interest of the reader. A prime example of this would be Bridgeman’s lack of jargon, which she sacrifices in favor of appealing to a broader audience. The various tools used by the ethnographer create a unique and effective way of expressing the story of homeless women in Toronto and those who care for their well-being.

Broader Contributions of Safe Haven

Rae Bridgeman is successful in attracting a wide readership for a combination of two reasons.

The first is because of her unique way of expressing a somewhat monochrome theme. The various tools used by Bridgeman engage the reader because of the different forms in which the ethnography is written. In addition to this, the lack of jargon creates for a much larger audience who could comprehend the material. Students and adults alike from all walks of life can appreciate the creative insight into a relatively unknown problem among urban populations. In addition to students and ethnographers, the primary readership benefitting from this ethnography would be policy-makers, social workers, and all those municipal workers interacting with the homeless populations. Beyond these specific occupations, anyone with a basic education should consider reading this book for the information it contains relating to mental health and addiction. Rae Bridgeman sheds a light on the women who battle these problems everyday and the causes and solutions related to the chronically homeless.

Secondly, Rae Bridgeman describes a unique and uncommon approach to a major problem within urban cores that is often times overlooked. There are upwards of 5,000 homeless people within the city of Toronto alone. Safe Haven describes the story of a small proportion of this population, which has certain issues that cause them to be chronically homeless. In addition to this, the story describes an outreach program looking to benefit women who are normally looked past within society. The story of Savard’s shelter responds to these unique problems with unique solutions that allow for homeless women to reach out for help as oppose to it getting forced upon them. The combination of Rae Bridgeman’s distinct writing style combined with the uncommon story she shares makes for an ethnography, which is attractive to a wide range of beliefs and interests.

Word Count: 1241


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

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

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


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