During the bitter cold of January 1979, three friends began operating a women’s drop-in center out of a second-floor apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Staffed exclusively by volunteers, it served fewer than ten women per day. The center became known as “Sarah’s Circle,” after the resident tabby cat that kept the women company.
Today, forty years later, Sarah’s Circle continues to provide refuge to women who are experiencing homelessness or need a safe space. Sarah’s Circle is one of just two organizations in Chicago—where more than 2,000 women are currently experiencing homelessness—that exclusively serve women and aim to address their gender-specific needs. Women who are homeless are three times more likely to experience sexual assault than women in the general population or men who are homeless. On average, one in five women report that domestic violence is a direct cause of their homelessness.
All of the women that Sarah’s Circle serves are considered low-income, with fifty-one percent having no income. Thirty-three percent are age fifty-five or older. Sarah’s Circle is able to serve approximately 800 women each year, and offers three core programs:
- Daytime Support Center – Drop-in center providing case management and basic necessities to any woman in need
- Interim Housing Program – Fifty-bed shelter open twenty-four hours a day
- Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) Program – Thirty units of affordable housing provided to women who have been chronically homeless
It was through the Interim Housing Program that Sarah’s Circle was able to help Sharon. She was in her late fifties when she became homeless. Her life had been going well; she was a sales supervisor who had worked her way up to the role after starting at her company as an appointment setter, and she lived in an apartment on LaSalle Street that she loved. Then, her employer went out of business and she lost her job.
“I was unbelievably in shock,” she said. “What am I going to do, you know? Because getting older in life, it’s hard for me to get a job. I was thinking about my apartment most of all because I was so happy there. Then I was on the job hunt again. I did not get one offered. I had no choice but to go into a homeless situation.”
Sharon became a resident of the Interim Housing Program. Staff members work closely with the women in the program to help them secure income and stable, permanent housing—last year, they helped ninety-one women transition from homelessness into permanent housing. After moving into their new home, women can continue to receive services from Sarah’s Circle, which helps ensure they stay housed.
With the support of Sarah’s Circle staff, Sharon began working again, saved up money, and moved into her own apartment. “Sarah’s Circle changed my life,” she said.
Sarah’s Circle continues to grow: this year, construction began on a new building, which will include thirty-eight units of permanent supportive housing and an improved space for the Interim Housing Program. The new building is expected to open in 2020.