Help Empower Women Who are Homeless in Chicago

by Sarah's Circle

 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 It is not only the shortage of affordable housing and limited income that lead to homelessness, but also outdated job skills, physical health problems, and the long-lasting impact of trauma.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.  


Strength Collage
Strength Collage

 Women come to Sarah’s Circle with incredible strength and resilience. Most have shown deep fortitude and resourcefulness to survive desperate circumstances. They have also demonstrated a willingness to ask for help and work to rebuild even after so many people in their lives have turned them away.

 Women also have unique individual strengths. An important part of the case management process involves conducting an assessment to determine each woman’s individual strengths and challenges. Service plans are then tailored to the circumstances and goals of each woman. If a woman has skills and interest in food service, the case manager might try to connect her to an employment program focused on that sector. If a woman struggles with a mental illness but has a strength of being able to connect with others, a group therapy setting might be a good fit.

 An important component of Clinical Services is often helping women recognize their own strengths. Homelessness can contribute to depression and a loss of a sense of positive self worth. By coming to appreciate their own strengths, women improve their self-esteem and ability to use those strengths to rebuild their lives. In addition to generating the words used in the “word cloud” pictured on the cover of our annual report, women in an art therapy group created the collage shown above to illustrate their strengths. While women listed many specific strengths, there is an overarching theme of hope, faith, and the ability to stay positive despite so much adversity.

21st Annual Winter Walk
21st Annual Winter Walk

Since our founding in 1979, Sarah’s Circle has been an organization with deep roots in the community. Supporters share their time, skills, financial resources, and social capital with Sarah’s Circle to work towards our mission. That social capital has been crucial in gaining community approval for zoning changes needed for our facilities, increasing online fundraising from new donors for our Winter Walk, and spreading awareness about the complex causes of homelessness in our community.

Our significant growth and tremendous success in completing capital projects in the past several years was only possible with your support. With this growth, we have more staff and expanded services, but community support continues to be critical to accomplishing our mission. Private donations support our essential programs, ensure the Daytime Support Center is open to any woman in need, and help us provide services tailored to the specific needs of women. Individual volunteers present workshops, staff our front desk, serve on committees, and lead on our board. Groups as diverse as the Diversey Yacht Club, Edgebrook Lutheran Church, and Robert Morris University - Illinois Volleyball team have served meals, assembled beds, painted walls, hosted program events, and raised funds. Our community is expanding with our programs, but the mission remains the same. Together we help women rebuild their lives.  


Art Therapy
Art Therapy

Clinical Services, including art therapy, are provided at the Daytime Support Center to address the trauma, domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse which are contributors to and often a consequence of housing instability among the women served. In order to address these issues, Sarah’s Circle provides individual and group clinical counseling, including art therapy, to women in the housing and daytime programs. When “Flora” was released from jail in 2013, she knew alcohol abuse had caused many of her problems and was determined to change, but didn’t know where to start. Homeless and without anyone to turn to for help, Flora was relieved when a stranger pointed her to Sarah’s Circle. Through art therapy and individual counseling, she realized why dealing with her drinking problem had always been such a challenge. She had started using alcohol to cope with childhood trauma and continued using it as an escape from the pain of domestic violence, losing custody of her children, and homelessness. Flora was able to gain a better understanding of her own reasons for using and find more constructive ways of dealing with emotional challenges. With newfound strength, Flora worked with her case manager to find a transitional housing program that would best support her personal goal of sobriety.


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Organization Information

Sarah's Circle

Location: Chicago, IL - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Elizabeth Dunn
Chicago, IL United States
$20,879 raised of $35,000 goal
405 donations
$14,121 to go
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