Announcements 10.18.2021

Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness

An interview with Sarah’s Circle Executive Director Kathy Ragnar

On any night in Chicago, 2,000 women are homeless. Sarah’s Circle is at the forefront of efforts in the city to bring permanent housing solutions – from shelter to an array of supportive services – to end homelessness among women.

For nearly a decade, we have been collaborating with the leadership of Sarah’s Circle as a cornerstone of our Social Purpose program, contributing to the community with the design of comfortable, accessible, and secure housing that meets the needs of Sarah’s Circle clients, establishes a recognizable and consistent brand for the organization, and is an asset to the Uptown neighborhood in which the units are located.

The first two floors of Sarah's Circle's second building recall the original red brick façade of the previous building built in the 1920s.

We have designed two homes for women for Sarah’s Circle, co-locating permanent and interim housing and programming in two highly-efficient and well-received buildings. We are now working on a third shelter for women, which will break ground in early 2022. The past year of the pandemic produced enormous challenges for the homeless population in Chicago and for Sarah’s Circle, which had to reduce the number of women in interim housing and reduce popular programming such as art and music classes and cooking demonstrations, which it is hoped will be returning soon. Throughout, says Sarah’s Circle Executive Director Kathy Ragnar, “Perkins&Will has been there for us. They have done an amazing job. They have contributed not only to the welfare of a very vulnerable woman, but to the agency and the City of Chicago.”

Our first building, opened in 2013, was an adaptive re-use of a former three-story furrier showroom into 10 studio apartments, administrative space, and programming. The newest building, opened in January, replaced a long-shuttered, dilapidated two-story red-brick facility, since demolished, into a six-story building with 38 private apartments and interim housing for another 50 women, plus space for administrative offices, kitchen and dining, and community programming. The first two floors recall the original red brick façade of the previous building built in the 1920s. Terracotta artifacts from that building have been restored and reinstalled, including two sculptural female Viking warrior busts dubbed “Sarah Cotta”, the protectors of the Sarah’s Circle building. Designed with input from the surrounding community, the sleek four-story residential tower is set back two feet emphasize the massing of the masonry base.

For permanent housing resident and Sarah’s Circle board member June Merritt the new facility is transforming her life. “When I walked in the new building, my eyes got wide open,” says Merritt, who has experienced homelessness several times. “When I walked into my apartment, I broke down in tears. It is such a healing experience. What you are doing is basically saving lives.”

We are now planning a third building several blocks away and which will provide homes for 28 women in permanent housing and an array of support services.

Chris Hale, Principal and project manager, has been working with the team since the partnership began. “We always strive to design homes as inspiring as Sarah’s Circle team and clients. This second building, like the first, was designed to honor the architecture of the Uptown neighborhood and introduce modern elements, efficiencies, and conveniences. It was designed to be energy efficient and has been prepared for a future rooftop solar array.

The new six-story building has 38 private apartments and interim housing for another 50 women, plus space for administrative offices, kitchen and dining, and community programming.
Says Sarah’s Circle Executive Director Kathy Ragnar, “Perkins&Will has been there for us. They have done an amazing job. They have contributed not only to the welfare of a very vulnerable woman, but to the agency and the City of Chicago.”

We spoke with Executive Director Kathy Ragnar about the special design requirements of supportive housing, how the organization has adapted since the beginning of the pandemic, and how the ongoing partnership with Perkins&Will contributes to Sarah’s Circle’s mission to end homelessness. The conversation is condensed.

On the complexities of designing supportive housing and responding to client needs:

Many women will live in our apartments for the rest of their lives. Many have been homeless for many years, and have become isolated. We need to offer a range of services – community programming, kitchens, arts programs. The role of the building is very important: we have to keep everyone safe; the women in interim housing cannot have access to those in permanent housing; you must be open 24/7 and be able to provide three meals a day.

What do these buildings mean to Sarah's Circle community?
"It sends a message: you are special, you are welcome here."
Terracotta artifacts from that building have been restored and reinstalled, including two sculptural female Viking warrior busts dubbed “Sarah Cotta”, the protectors of the Sarah’s Circle building.

On the distinctive features of the Perkins&Will-designed housing:

Perkins&Will has done an amazing job at branding our buildings with our colors and red brick. They have designed a building that feels like a home, but it’s also very sturdy. Our buildings can be similar to schools – high-use facilities, where finishes and flooring are especially important. They are beautiful, gorgeous buildings. There is so much attention to window detail, for example, and how much light comes in – that is so important. You come into a first-class building, with artwork that is designed to be uplifting and reflective of the diversity of our community. It sends a message: you are special, you are welcome here. For our staff, too, this is a great building. They have really difficult jobs, and it’s important for them to have really nice spaces – offices, kitchens, places to park their bike. This shows how much we value them.

On adapting to the pandemic and lessons for the future:

We had to rethink how we configured case management and intake rooms. We put in long tables instead of desks with side chairs. We’re keeping a lot of what we learned in mind as we design the next building – more flexible layout of offices; cutting in half the amount of administrative space because working remotely will be an option, and adding four more apartments; more area for package delivery – a wave of the future.

On the partnership with Perkins&Will:

We couldn’t have gotten to this new building without them. You know you are getting first class work. To have architectural talent with you when you are evaluating buildings, you can’t calculate that value. These buildings are not only an asset for Sarah’s Circle, but also for the City of Chicago. We have housing and programs to provide services for the most vulnerable women in Chicago. This has immediate impact, and this is the future – 30 years from now we will have the infrastructure in place for programs and services.

Our first building, opened in 2013, was an adaptive re-use of a former three-story furrier showroom into 10 studio apartments, administrative space, and programming.