Founded in the Late 1970s
In the late 1970s, homelessness among women was a relatively new phenomenon. The need to reach out to this group was not obvious, not even to the women who founded 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 Uptown Women’s Center (as Sarah’s Circle was briefly known) was open from mid-afternoon to 9 p.m. During the first six months, fewer than ten women visited the center regularly. 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 conform to a system, the volunteers agreed that they would differ from other social service agencies—they would accept each woman as she was. The few rules 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. The name, "Sarah's Circle" came from the agency cat, Sarah, who spent time in the center keeping women company.
Growth in the 1980s
The 1980’s saw a growing need for additional ways to address homelessness. Sarah’s Circle attracted increased funding and volunteers while the number of women served also 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 program services expanded to includeeducational programming, culinary arts training, computer services, and case management assistance for every woman who walked through the doors.
As an organization, Sarah's Circle continued to advance. The Permanent Supportive Housing Program began with 10 units in 2007 to provide permanent housing and comprehensive supportive services to women who have been chronically homeless-experiencing a disability and homeless for at least one year. In 2008, Sarah's Circle began offering Clinical Services to address the trauma experienced by many of the women served—often a leading cause of homelessness. In November 2011, Sarah's Circle stepped up to operate a 50 bed shelter for women. The Interim Housing Program provides comprehensive supportive services and meets basic needs for participants 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Staff work closely with women in the program to help them find safe, permanent housing and to secure an income. Once a woman is housed, Sarah's Circle can provide services to ensure she stays housed.
In 2013 Sarah’s Circle completed construction of a building at 4838 N. Sheridan to house the Daytime Support Center, 10 units of Permanent Supportive Housing, and the organization’s administrative offices. The Board of Directors and staff gained valuable experience in property development with this project and cemented its presence in Uptown for years to come. Sarah’s Circle developed the Make It Home Fund in 2016 to provide up to $500 in one time assistance to cover expenses related to acquiring permanent housing. Rare openings in affordable housing often have a brief window of opportunity during which the application fee, security deposit, and first month’s rent must be paid, or the housing provider will move on to the next potential resident. The funding available through this fund helped women quickly access apartments and become housed sooner.
Sarah’s Circle continues to provide services to hundreds of women each year through the Daytime Support Center, Interim Housing Program, and Clinical Services. The Permanent Supportive Housing Program has grown to 30 units but the need for housing far outstrips availability. The agency is developing a new 35,000 square foot building at 1005 W. Leland which will include 38 units of Permanent Supportive Housing as well as an improved space for the agency’s existing Interim Housing Program. Scheduled to break ground in spring of 2019 and to be occupied by the fall of 2020, this project will help end the homelessness of some of the many single women in Chicago who desperately need a safe place to live.