10/25/2013 02:46 pm ET

Clara's Place, Chicago Women's Shelter, Going Without Heat Or Hot Water Over $21,000 Gas Bill

A women's shelter that has been a mainstay of Chicago's West Englewood neighborhood for decades is now fighting to keep its doors open as the bills continue to pile up while financial support has run dry.

The most pressing of those bills facing Clara's Place is a whopping $21,000 the shelter's founder and director Clara Kirk owes Peoples Gas, which last week shut off the shelter's gas service, leaving them without heat or hot water, DNAinfo Chicago reported Thursday.

Clara's Place, which houses 19 women and 23 children, is one of two shelters Kirk founded in 1987. As DNAinfo notes, her other shelter -- Clara's House -- houses another 38 women and is also in financial trouble, owing Peoples Gas an additional $11,000.

The shelters are completely volunteer-run and are, for many of their residents, a last resort for women struggling to get back on their feet.

"This is the biggest challenge I ever have faced," Kirk, 72, told the Chicago Tribune this week.

"I'm devastated," she added to WGN.

The shelter has struggled financially in recent years, facing fines from the city for building code violations and penalties from the IRS for being behind on payroll taxes. But the Chicago Sun-Times notes Kirk's work at the center has also received many accolades, including being awarded a Jefferson Award for community service in 1996 and being honored at the White House by President Clinton in 1998.

Peoples Gas says it has "been working with Clara's House since April regarding four accounts, all of which are in substantial arrears," NBC Chicago reports. The utility says it will turn the heat back on once a payment arrangement is agreed upon.

A link to make a donation via Paypal to the West Englewood United Organization, which operates Clara's Place and Clara's House, is available on the group's website.