Founded in the Late 1970s
In the late 1970s, homelessness among women was a relatively new phenomenon. The need to reach out to this segment of the population was not obvious, not even to the women who would found Sarah's Circle. While volunteering for what became known as Harper House, three friends—Jeanette Hupp, Janet Sullivan and Maxine Florell—decided they wanted to do something for the women of Uptown. In January 1979, the group began operating a women's center in a second-floor apartment at 4455 North Broadway. Staffed by the planners and other volunteers, the center was open from mid-afternoon to 9 p.m. During the first six months, there were fewer than ten women who visited the center regularly. Some of them were homeless; some appeared to be mentally ill. That winter was a bitter one, prompting the volunteers to sometimes invite the women into their homes rather than have them spend the night outside in the cold.
The Few Rules Were Important Ones
Because they did not want to insist that the women served by the center conform to a system, the staff agreed that the center would differ from other social service agencies—they would accept each woman as she was. There were very few rules, but they were important ones, involving keeping the peace and being respectful of others. The founding staff formed a board of directors and incorporated the center as a non-profit organization, and one day at the center an impromptu sing-along began, with everyone singing “We are dancing Sarah’s Circle” to the tune of Jacob’s Ladder. The center was named that evening.
Growth in the 1980s
The 1980’s saw a growing need for ways to address the problem of homelessness. Sarah’s Circle attracted increased funding and volunteers while the number of women served continued to grow. By 1990, it was not uncommon to serve meals to 80 women in one day. To accommodate this growing need, Sarah’s Circle moved in early 1997 to the Institute of Cultural Affairs Building at 4750 N. Sheridan. Soon after, the staff expanded to include a case manager and a food manager, while our program services increased to offer educational programming, culinary arts training, computer services, and case management assistance for every woman who would walk through the doors.
As an organization, Sarah’s Circle continues to advance. In 2007, we added a permanent housing program to provide permanent housing and comprehensive supportive services to women who have disabling conditions and have been chronically homeless. The program has since grown to 22 units. In 2008, we started offering to women clinical services to address trauma they’ve experienced in their lives—a leading cause of homelessness. In November 2011, Sarah's Circle stepped up to operate a 50 bed shelter for women located on the North Side of Chicago. With this Program, we provide physical and comprehensive support services for the women for 24 hours a day 365 days a year, while we also work with them to find permanent housing. Once they are housed, we provide services to ensure housing retention.