Bridgman, Rae: Safe Haven: the Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women.
Article Type: Book Review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Spain, Daphne
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Bridgman, Rae
Accession Number: 129248104
Full Text: Bridgman, Rae Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter for Homeless Women. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 161 pp. ISBN 0-8020-4240-6 (bound); ISBN 0-8020-8084-7 (pbk.)

Safe Haven is more than an account of a shelter for homeless women. It is the chronicle of a feminist project in Toronto that sought to design a flexible and compassionate facility for chronically homeless women who were also mentally ill. It was a challenging task. Their clientele were the most marginal of a marginalized population. Women who might rant and scream, hoard rotting food, or physically threaten others were often evicted from traditional shelters. How could space meet their needs, instead of making them adapt to an existing space? Bridgman explores why, and how, such an alternative was attempted.

The story begins in 1993, when women who had previously worked in homeless shelters formed the Women's Street Survivors Project (WSSP) as an advisory group to Homes First Society, a charitable organization committed to transitional housing. In 1997 the WSSP opened a shelter that differed from others in that it admitted everyone, evicted no one, provided 24-hour access, and offered unlimited length of residence. The shelter was named Savard's in honor of a woman who had lived on the streets for many years before becoming a community worker.

The WSSP wanted a facility that would create a low-demand, high-support community where street women would feel comfortable. Outreach workers talked with women on the street to discover their objections to available options. Sometimes that meant seeking them out in washrooms at the bus or train station, or visiting a particular heating grate. Information gathered from homeless women was shared at a design session consisting of front-line shelter staff, staff of Homes First, municipal housing officials, and the architects. Among the ideas generated, and discarded, were a courtyard where a woman could continue sleeping outdoors if she wished, and a pacing and screaming room. Working within the limits of a 2,000 square-foot space made it impossible to meet every wish. The final product did, however, provide sleeping nooks, a communal kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry for fifteen women and two staff members.

Fifteen women seem like a small number. Yet Savard's saved the government substantial sums compared with expensive in-patient admissions, acute and chronic hospitalization, or imprisonment. Savard's operated on an annual budget of $600,000; psychiatric care alone for those same fifteen women was estimated at $2 million annually. The WSSP was thus providing a public service as well as individual care.

I was struck by the similarities between Savard's and facilities for women adrift one hundred years ago. The YWCA often sought its recruits at the train station, as did the WSSR (In fact, front-line workers for Savard's rely on the YWCA at the bus station for some of their referrals.) The Salvation Army provided food and shelter for the most needy, although its goals were evangelical. (Savard's song refers to homeless women as "somebody's daughter, somebody's sister" as an appeal for support, just as The Salvation Army did.) Savard's qualifies as a contemporary redemptive place that saves women from the worst conditions of the street while reducing the city's cost burden for their care.

Bridgman describes herself as an urban anthropologist conducting an ethnography of Savard's. Her goal was to document the processes by which a utopian feminist vision became reality, with the hope that it might be duplicated in other cities. Bridgman doesn't ignore the difficulties that characterized the project's development. In addition to their intense twelve-hour shifts at the shelter, staff members were expected to raise operating funds. They also spent endless hours on the streets trying to find women who were most in need of Savard's services. Bridgman's research, which began in 1995 and continued until July 2000, was based on 250 hours of participant observation, staff meetings, daily staff logbooks, and interviews with staff. The only weakness of the book is its primary focus on the staff, almost to the exclusion of homeless women, despite Bridgman's attempt to include all voices.

The story ends well. In 2002 Savard's moved to a large storefront with room for thirty residents and six staff members. Fund raising has been replaced by support from the Canadian Ministry of Health. The saga will continue when other cities adopt the Savard's model thanks to this ethnography.

Daphne Spain

Department of Urban and Environmental Planning

University of Virginia
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.