Rae Bridgman, University of Toronto Press, 2003

Reviewed by Karen Coen Flynn, Assistant Professor of Anthropology
at the University of Akron

Homeless women in cities worldwide are pushed repeatedly to the margins of society, but they do not linger there passively. Instead homeless women actively, creatively and persistently try to survive in the openings left between the intersecting economic, legal, gendered and aesthetic domains of the permanently housed. Mentally ill homeless women must struggle even harder to make a life in the far fewer openings left for them and in any given city these openings are not only few to begin with but also are extremely difficult to create. Anthropologist Rae Bridgman’s Safe Haven: The Story Of A Shelter For Homeless Women explores the unique development of Toronto’s Savard shelter and through the perspectives of the women who work and live there she offers academics, service providers, policymakers and activists an intimate view of creating in Canada’s largest city an appropriate space for mentally ill homeless women.

Safe Haven is not another book on the survival strategies or life histories of the homeless, although Bridgman’s expertise in these topics, fostered by her long-term research interests and evident in her past publications, is again apparent in passages throughout the book. Instead the text is an original work of processual ethnography focused on both action and space. Safe Haven examines through the analytical lens of a long-term participant observer the actions involved in Savard’s organizational development from a demonstration project to house 15 women funded piecemeal by various private and local agencies to a respected shelter with accommodations for 30 women that is now supported directly by the Ministry of Health. The book also explores the ongoing tensions and evolving readjustments between the founding staff’s vision and the frontline workers’ daily practices. Most intriguing was the shelter staff’s virtually gatekeeping-free and non-interventionist approach to the women they served. While weapons, violence, illegal drugs and alcohol were not permitted on the premises, on entering the shelter there were no intake interviews, forms to sign or searches to endure and while shelter residents were provided information and access to medical, legal and social services they were neither required to pursue these offerings nor even forced to take any prescribed medication. The ease of maintaining the comfort, safety, privacy and mutual respect of the women working and living at Savard’s did not always match the organization’s utopian principles, but certainly the durability of the approach, from 1997 to the present, strengthens the power of Savard’s example.

Safe Haven is also an ethnography of space, including turf, gaps and nooks. Chapter 2, “Reaching Out,” includes excerpts from Bridgman’s fieldnotes on the staff’s street work to identify and build a sense of trust with often suspicious or fearful mentally ill homeless women. Her notes bring to the forefront of the mind’s eye a view of this gleaming city as a labyrinth of heating pipes and grates, stairwells, benches and cardboard boxes that have been claimed as individual women’s unique turf and places of refuge. Bridgman examines in Chapter 3, “Shelter Women,” the various approaches used by Canadian service providers in general to house the homeless. She also deconstructs the labels of “non-compliant,” “hard to reach” and “service resistors” that often are applied to mentally ill homeless women, in particular, by asking, “What is it that these women are resisting?” (43). Despite the widely held stereotype that the homeless choose to live the way they do, for many “choice” has little to do with it. These women often are seeking to escape abusive and violent relationships with few of the social, emotional, organizational and educational skills necessary to function successfully in the competitive world of the mainstream society. Bridgman convincingly argues that the mentally ill easily fall through the gaps in existing social services, whether these chasms result inadvertently through poor funding or a simple lack of foresight or are created consciously by those who themselves resist building policy or service models that are flexible enough to meet these women’s special needs.

Yet rather than ending with this critique, the author continues throughout the heart of the book to offer a detailed look at the design and creation of Savard’s physical spaces, such as the private sleeping nooks, as well as the hiring of shelter staff. Chapter 6, “Come Inside,” simulates one week’s worth of daily logbook entries by the frontline workers and is followed in the next chapter, “Natural Progression,” by the staffs’ own observations on the changes that had occurred during the first three years of operation. While still centered on a philosophy of low-demand and high-support, more recently staff members have begun to intervene rapidly when necessary in an attempt to avoid situations that, in other shelters, might result in a woman being required to leave.

Bridgman’s Safe Haven is an excellent contribution to the literature on both homelessness and the development of NGOs and will be appreciated by scholars and activists alike. It will very likely spark productive debates among outreach workers on the streets and frontline shelter staff. It should be required reading for anyone involved with welfare, housing and health and human services policymaking. Written in easily accessible and lively prose in under 140 pages, Safe Haven also is suitable for undergraduate and graduate students as well as anyone with interests in anthropology, sociology and the study of women, poverty and cities.

Flynn is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Classical Studies, Anthropology and Archaeology at The University of Akron, and studies food, poverty and homelessness in Tanzania and the United States. Her book Food, Culture and Survival in an African City (Palgrave) is forthcoming March 2005.

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