Medill Chicago: More homelessness calls for more space, so women’s group is expanding

Katherine Ragnar cannot wait to start wearing the hard hat that she cheerfully taps when she walks by it sitting on the bookcase in her office.

For Ragnar, executive director of Sarah’s Circle, an organization in the Uptown neighborhood that provides services for homeless women, that hat represents a project that has been three years in the making.

Next month, Sarah’s Circle will begin renovation of a building down the street from their current facility at 4750 N. Sheridan Rd., where they are squeezed into a couple of rooms in an apartment. The new building, which they have been planning since 2009, will offer 10 units of permanent housing, space for individual counseling, clinical groups and educational groups, as well as much needed offices that will allow them to expand their services.

The existing space was designed to serve about 50 women, but they typically serve 80 or more, Ragnar said.

“We’re packed and I think that sometimes can exarcebate problems,” Ragnar said.

The organization has seen a rise in the number of homeless women in recent years, and Ragnar said one reason for this is an increasing number of women who are dealing with episodic homelessness.

A woman who is chronically homeless is “a women who is unaccompanied and disabled, and who has been continuously homeless for over a year,” said Caroline Aiken, development assistant at Sarah’s Circle.

Episodic homelessness, however, is more sudden.

Ragnar said after the recession in 2008, many people came in who were experiencing episodic homelessness.

“We had a lot of women who lost a job, especially if they had a fairly limited skill set,” Ragnar said.

Aiken said jobless women are helped by case management services.

“They work together to secure employment and the case management will provide referral services, job training programs, and resources,” Aiken said.

“The economy has impacted many low-income families including those headed by single mothers,” Matt Smith, chief spokesman for the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services, said in an email. “We have responded by providing homelessness prevention assistance, interim housing and other services to these families and have experienced steady demand for these services over the past year.”

While it doesn’t have data on the single women that Sarah’s Circle serves, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless said homelessness in general has been increasing. The coalition’s website reported there were 93,780 homeless Chicagoans during the 2010-11 school year. The analysis by policy director Julie Dworkin said this was a 5.5 percent increase over the previous school year.
“We get an updated number of homeless children in CPS and we extrapolate from there the number of homeless families.” Dworkin said.

The open door policy at Sarah’s Circle, which allows any woman to seek their services, is unique in Chicago, Ragnar said.

“That very nonjudgmental community can be very healing for women,” Ragnar said.

Prior to Nov. 1, Sarah’s Circle was a drop-in center where women could come in to use their services, get toiletries, or see a case manager. However, after Nov. 1 they began offering 24-hour services through a 50-bed interim housing program in addition to their daily drop-in program, Aiken said.

“We currently just need more space in order to essentially carry out our mission of ultimately ending homelessness, so we feel that that’s really necessary.” Aiken said.

The women in the interim housing program sleep at a nearby church, and the goal is to place them in permanent supportive housing within 120 days, Aiken said.

While this is a good resource for women who are staying for short periods of time, Aiken said chronically homeless women need more permanent housing.

“If you’ve got 50 women sleeping eight inches away from each other at night it’s hard,” Ragnar said.

Aiken said the apartments in the new location will house 10 chronically homeless women.

Since they are currently tucked away inside a building, Ragnar said it will be nice to have their own space when construction is completed a year from now.

“It will really increase our capacity to help empower very vulnerable women who have been or are homeless,” Aiken said.

– Hope Holmberg