Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sarah's Circle Provides Shelter, Aid for the Homeless and Mentally Ill

CHICAGO—A woman with long black hair wearing an oversized purple sweater talks to me out of the corner of her mouth. “Are you here for group? It’s almost that time.” She shrugs nonchalantly, “I’m Penny.” She doesn’t give a last name.

In another life, Penny, 61, might have been a flapper in a 1920s speakeasy. But while her demeanor begs for a Lucky Strike and a gin and tonic, her reality is a serious one.

Penny has Bipolar disorder. She sits at one of the many foldaway tables in the community room of Sarah’s Circle, a women’s shelter in Uptown. Yearly, about 750 women suffering from any combination of homelessness, abuse, and mental illness seek food and daytime shelter.

In the muted brightness of the common room—a spacious cafeteria that is friendlier than a hospital but with a similar somber feel—women sit mostly in pairs, chatting, eating soup, drinking water. A group of seven around a foldaway table are entranced by the jewelry being

shown on the shopping network. A short woman with stringy gray hair and coke-bottle glasses mutters to herself while she picks through informational brochures about various kinds of abuse and treatments.

Sarah’s Circle is one of many service-based organizations on the northern end of Uptown. Virginia Bové, Sarah’s Circle’s clinical and program director, describes the area as a “Homeless Mecca.”

“It’s the best place in the world,” Janice (she prefers her last name be omitted), who sits across from Penny, tells me. “They give us two meals a day, and there’s no men except the delivery men. But besides that, no men at all. I’m here all day; have been for three years.” Then she asks me, “Are you writing this down?”

Penny chimes in: “They have showers, too,” she says. “Even if not everyone uses them.” Sitting in Sarah’s Circle, Penny and Janice are at ease. They can engage in group support sessions, art therapy, private counseling and even mood management classes.

Sarah’s Circle is mostly funded by government grants, but relies heavily on contributions from corporations such as JP Morgan Chase and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, as well as religious organizations like the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest and the Sisters of Charity.

Bové described mental illness as “a common denominator with many of the women” who seek help there. “We get it all.”

That requires Sarah’s Circle to offer a lot. The shelter offers two groups a day. One group always pertains to life skills and special interests such as creative writing, dance, and yoga. The second is a therapy group which deals with topics such as domestic violence, mood management, and relaxation.

Sarah’s Circle is well versed in crisis work. “Most of the women here have been through some kind of horrible trauma,” says Bové. “And trauma paired with homelessness complicates the situation.”

Mental illness plays a role, too. “Most cycle through depression,” says Bové. “[Any kind of] mental illness often has an isolating effect on individuals.”

Penny’s story is not uncommon at Sarah’s Circle. It has been 17 years since Penny left an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. With nowhere else to go, she found herself homeless before moving into a “HUD” apartment. HUD—short for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—grants about $67,500 to Sarah’s Circle yearly.

“I didn’t like it, so I left,” said Penny with an air of solidarity. “I had to get out, and then I ended up on the fifth floor.” The “fifth floor” is what clients at Sarah’s Circle call Heartland Health Services, located in the same building as Sarah’s Circle. 

While Sarah’s Circle helps facilitate the housing situation of some of the women who frequent the shelter, Penny explains that Heartland Services provides clients housing with a 24-hour, on-duty psychiatrist.

Penny, who has a love-hate relationship with the fifth floor, “graduated” from it in 2004.

Upstairs, she tells me, they close early. Penny says most of the people there can’t function by themselves. But she can, she says with conviction. Penny is able to take her own medicine (“Paxil and some other stuff,” she tells me. “Antidepressants and such.”). She can even regulate her own amounts.

On the fifth floor, support is everywhere. In a low voice, Penny leans in to tell me, “They have more people than here. There, they go with me to the Burlington coat factory. They help me with phone numbers. They tell me how to replace my bus card.” Penny misses the fifth floor, but as she made clear, “I’m too advanced for that. I have my own refrigerator now.”

Though Penny felt she was beyond the fifth floor, she wasn’t happy when it came time to leave. “My friends were there,” she says.

But she took the next step. “Got my own apartment,” she pauses. “Kind of what you’re doing, Janice.” Janice, who has been quiet during this, looks down as she pulls at the long strands of hair coming from her chin.

When I ask Janice where she was before Sarah’s Circle, she gives a pointed answer: “Shelters.” She was never on the fifth floor.

The next day, the two women participate in Kassie Weber’s informal, common-room art therapy sessions. Weber has been interning with Sarah’s Circle since September while working on a graduate degree in Art Therapy at Adler School of Professional Psychology.

“Most of these women have been through tons of trauma, and are sometimes able to access inner conflict through art,” says Weber. “It is incredibly empowering.”

Weber usually administers art therapy by either letting those who participate in her groups draw whatever they want, or by offering directives such as, “Draw your family,” or, “draw your house.”

However, Weber pointed out the need for sensitivity that comes with being an Art Therapist. “It can be harmful. Some [patients] may not be equipped to cope with what they find; it’s not right for everyone.”

Weber is doing a very informal type of art therapy session. Penny and Janice seem to take little interest, but most women are diligently attaching heart-shaped decorations onto white paper-bags with glitter-glue. Today’s theme is light-hearted: Valentine’s Day.

A little after 1 p.m., about 12 women rise and walk toward another room. Before I can ask, the woman sitting at my table shouts to a friend across the room, “Domestic Violence, Marsha?*”  And the response, with a hint of a drawl: “Every week, you know that.”

Director Bové stresses that the key to helping many of the women who come into Sarah’s circle is acceptance.

“We understand that relapse is a part of recovery,” she said. “And no one can stay in crisis forever.”

*Real name has been changed.

-Kate Midden

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