Help Empower Women Who are Homeless in Chicago

by Sarah's Circle
"Cherise" happy in her new home!
"Cherise" happy in her new home!

“Cherise” is an independent and resourceful woman and has been living alone on a modest retirement income for several years. Unfortunately, after being diagnosed with MS, Cherise was admitted into a nursing home last year with medical complications. Cherise did not have adequate insurance coverage for the nursing home and had no choice but to pay for her nursing home stay instead of rent while recovering. Two months later when Cherise was healthy enough to leave the nursing home, she was homeless.

Cherise found immediate shelter and support in Sarah’s Circle’s Interim Housing Program while she searched for housing. While Cherise had income, she had spent most of her savings during her illness and kept being turned down for housing because of a poor credit score. Cherise credits her case manager with helping her keep her “head up and keep working”, and connecting her to funds needed to finally get into housing. When Cherise was able to find a landlord to accept her despite her poor credit score, she was $65 short on being able to pay for fees and security deposit in addition to her first month’s rent. With one donor’s generous gift to Sarah’s Circle’s Make It Home Fund to make up that difference, Cherise was able to enter permanent housing within one month of entering Interim Housing!

In the fall of 2014, case managers at Sarah’s Circle identified a need in their programs. Program participants often just barely missed opportunities for housing despite diligent budgeting and some funding from Sarah’s Circle for IDs, application fees, and household essentials.

Rare openings in affordable housing units had a brief window of opportunity during which the application fee, move-in fee, security deposit, and first month’s rent had to be paid before the housing provider moved on to the next potential resident. Despite having income for ongoing rent, women just didn’t have enough savings to cover the additional one-time costs needed to make it home.

In response to this need, Sarah’s Circle developed a pilot project to dedicate up to $500 per woman to help cover one-time costs associated with moving into a permanent home. During the pilot period, 17 women used the funds to cover the difference between their savings and the cost of making it home to a new apartment. The average woman needed just $331 to make the difference between continued homelessness and permanent housing. The additional support reduced the time spent homeless by those women and resulted in more women being housed overall, with a total of 114 women accessing housing in a 12-month period, significantly surpassing our goal of 100 women.

By the end of 2015, 27 of the 114 (24% of ALL of the women housed in 2015!) women were able to access Make It Home funds which made the difference between homelessness and permanent housing. 

Solutions Infographic
Solutions Infographic

Sarah's Circle has always started with a strong foundation of volunteers, donors, and community support to help women address challenges. Volunteers help throughout the organization, including board and committee members, professionals providing services pro bono to the organization, and direct service volunteers who deliver essential basic services and educational programming. Building on that foundation, compassionate and well-trained staff provide essential services throughout the programs. 

The Daytime Support Center is Sarah’s Circle’s core program, providing daily essentials, community space, educational and general interest programming, case management, and clinical services to women in need. Any woman in need may participate in the Daytime Support Center, so women who may be street homeless, doubled up with friends or family, or at risk of homelessness all receive support.

Sarah’s Circle’s 50-bed Interim Housing Program provides 24-hour shelter and intensive supportive services to help women who are currently homeless move on to permanent housing as quickly as possible. Sarah’s Circle’s program is the largest of its type in the City of Chicago and is open to any woman who is homeless.

Sarah’s Circle’s 22-unit Permanent Supportive Housing Program is essential to helping the most vulnerable women end their homelessness. Women with disabling conditions who have been homeless for years are placed in housing and provided with intensive supportive services to help address the issues that have contributed to their long-term homelessness. 



 While women come to Sarah’s Circle with great strengths, they also face many challenges. Structurally, Chicago has a shortage of affordable housing. Women who become homeless have also typically struggled with multiple challenges simultaneously. It is not only the shortage of affordable housing and limited income that lead to homelessness, but also outdated job skills, physical health problems, and the long-lasting impact of trauma.

 An in-depth research study conducted in Massachusetts confirmed what Sarah’s Circle has learned through experience, that approximately 92% of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. Whether these assaults were child abuse early in life, recent domestic violence, or random acts of violence, these traumas often have long-lasting effects. A history of trauma has been linked to physical health problems, mental illness, and substance use disorders.

 These issues are major challenges for women, but can also be understood and addressed more effectively through a strength-based lens. For example, hyper-vigilance, the trait of constantly being on guard for possible threats, is a common symptom of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Yet, for women who have experienced severe assaults, being on guard for possible threats may be a way they have adapted to avoid future trauma. Other women may use alcohol or other substances to self-medicate when they do not have access to treatment. Sarah’s Circle’s effective Clinical Services programming helps women learn new coping strategies, while understanding the strength they have shown in finding other ways to cope when they did not have sufficient supports. 

 In 2014 Sarah’s Circle made significant progress both in expanding programmatic capacity and helping women meet their goals. One of our most important measures of success is the number of women placed into permanent housing. Despite dramatic reductions in affordable housing available in the community, Sarah’s Circle helped 92 women move into permanent housing in 2014. Most of these placements came from our Interim Housing Program, which increased the rate of placing women into permanent housing by approximately 30%. The women achieved their goals faster and opened more space in the program to provide shelter and supportive services to other women in need.

 Programmatic capacity was expanded in the Daytime Program by extending hours until 7pm on Thursday evenings. The new meal fills a gap in food availability in the community and provides extra time for engagement and case management with women in need of help who may have other obligations during the workday. Staff also helped women achieve hundreds of goals in addition to housing placements, such as gaining employment, securing benefits, and completing therapy to address past trauma.

 The Permanent Supportive Housing Program helped 100% of the women living in our permanent supportive housing to maintain their housing or to move on to other permanent housing in the community when they no longer needed such a high level of support. Additionally, Sarah’s Circle was able to expand one of the grants for the program to include one additional unit for a total of 22 units, ending homelessness for one more woman in need.  



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Organization Information

Sarah's Circle

Location: Chicago, IL - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Elizabeth Dunn
Chicago, IL United States
$19,949 raised of $35,000 goal
383 donations
$15,051 to go
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