- The Macy’s store at the Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia – and the mall itself – closed in January 2017.
- A year later, a homeless shelter in search of a temporary home constructed a temporary shelter within the old Macy’s store. The Carpenter’s Shelter moved into the old Macy’s store in June.
- To hear the full story, listen to Business Insider’s podcast, “Household Name.”
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia – What happens when a homeless shelter becomes homeless?
If you’re the Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, Virginia, you move into an old Macy’s store in the closed Landmark Mall.
Both the Macy’s and the mall in which it operated closed in January 2017. According to an executive at the Howard Hughes Corporation, the real estate company that owns the mall, the closing was a long time coming.
“When you show up on DeadMalls.com probably a decade before you close, it really is kind of the marketplace telling you you should get a different use there,” said Mark Bulmash, senior vice president for development at Howard Hughes, in a recent interview with Business Insider’s new podcast, “Household Name.“
At the same time, the Carpenter’s Shelter had a problem: it had been located in an old Department of Motor Vehicles office for about 20 years, but it was getting old, and they needed to do a lot of renovations. The shelter staff decided to tear down the building and rebuild a totally new shelter in its place. In the meantime, they moved into the former Macy’s store in the defunct Landmark Mall.
There are very few signs that Macy’s used to exist in the space.
“There are people who still come in and think this is a Macy’s,” said the Carpenter’s Shelter’s director of programming, Blair Copeland.
“Occasionally, there’ll be somebody that says, ‘I want to return something,’ and I’m like, ‘How could you?’ Stop. First of all, the mall has been closed for like 2 years. And secondly, it doesn’t look like Macy’s anymore.”
From the outside, a sign for the Carpenter’s Shelter covers smudged letters showing where the Macy’s sign used to be displayed. Inside, the only real display of the old Macy’s is the carpet and tile that line the floors.
See inside the shelter in the photos below:
The old Macy’s sign has been scrubbed away and partially covered with a new sign announcing the presence of the Carpenter’s Shelter.
The Carpenter’s Shelter’s executive director, Shannon Steene, said his team considered several possible temporary locations for the shelter, including an old warehouse, a church, and an old school.
“And then someone said, ‘You know, the ideal place would be the Landmark Mall,'” Steene said. “And then there was sort of a pause in the conversation and many people chuckled. But the seed had been planted.”
Howard Hughes has long-term plans to renovate the Landmark Mall into a mixed-use project that would include retail, restaurants, offices, and residences. But those plans were still a few years away, and Bulmash said he was intrigued by the idea.
“It’s an out-of-the-box idea, right?” Bulmash said. “I needed to convince our organisation that we could do it, right? That we had the time between doing the planning and getting the entitlements that we could put them in and not delay our starting construction on our project.”
Howard Hughes and the city of Alexandria signed off on an 18-month lease, and the Carpenter’s Shelter began construction last spring. The shelter moved into the old Macy’s in June.
Steene started working at the shelter in 2015, shortly before conversations about renovating the shelter began.
After making a deal with Howard Hughes to move into the old Macy’s store at the Landmark Mall, Steene had to go to a public meeting with the city of Alexandria to make sure they would sign off on it.
He had been concerned that the proposal would draw the ire of the community. After sitting through a long, contentious discussion about a schools issue, it was finally the Carpenter’s Shelter’s turn at 11 p.m.
“And so imagine much to my surprise, that there was only one person who had registered to speak and testify at that hearing,” Steene said. “And so she stood up and she said, ‘This is exactly the project we want to see in our community.'”
Steene was pleasantly surprised.
“It puts a lump in your throat,” Steene said. “When you think about what I had expected and what so many of my peers that run homeless services have encountered when they have gone before public hearing, and that’s not the standard reaction from a community.”
A large common area at the entrance to the Carpenter’s Shelter provides space for residents to eat their meals and hang out during the day.
The first thing visitors see upon entering the Carpenter’s Shelter is a large common area. This is where residents gather to eat their meals, use the computer, or hang out during the day. If there is a community meeting with the residents, it will happen in this room.
And though the visitor has just entered an old Macy’s store, there is barely a sign of its historic past.
“It doesn’t look exactly like the inside of a Macy’s other than when you look down at the flooring,” Steene said. “You see that there’s some tile walkways that in some ways head to doors and other places they just head to blanks walls. And so you do get a sense that there has been some sort of former life.”
The room leads to a smaller television/library lounge, a pantry, two sets of offices, the David’s Place day shelter, and a hallway that leads to the bedrooms.
The Carpenter’s Shelter helps more than 600 people every year.
The Carpenter’s Shelter has 60 beds to house residents at any given time.
There are two hallways filled with rooms – one hallway has rooms to house 24 single men, and the other has rooms to house six families and 12 single women.
“I think people in general misunderstand homelessness because the face of it is the guy who’s on the corner who’s obviously street homeless, dirty, maybe suffering from some mental illness that makes him hard to engage with, begging for money, I think that’s what people think about homelessness across the board,” Copeland said.
“I think they miss the working poor, you know the person who is pouring your coffee or making your food or washing your car, could be homeless as well.”
There are 60 beds, including space for about six families, 12 single women, and 24 single men.
People go to the Carpenter’s Shelter for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is that they just do not have enough money.
“One of the things that’s a surprise for many people is when they learn that half of the adults coming into shelter, about half of the adults coming in, are already working,” Steene said. “They are employed. It’s just not enough.”
The city of Alexandria’s affordable housing office says that a person would have to work four full-time jobs at minimum wage in order to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria.
That’s why the Carpenter’s Shelter has programming to help residents get jobs that can help them get better jobs. They also have a housing locator who helps find affordable housing in Alexandria or neighbouring towns and cities.
A smaller common area next to the main room gives residents a quieter place to watch television or read books.
Off of the main common area in the shelter, visitors will find residents hanging out in a small television/library lounge. It is the only room in the Carpenter’s Shelter that has a television, though there is another television in the day shelter next door.
“I think for me the biggest miracle that happens on a regular basis is: how do 60 people decide what one program they’re going to be watching?” Steene said.
The Carpenter’s Shelter also houses David’s Place, which gives those who are homeless and sleeping on the street a place to rest, clean, and get warm during the day.
The day shelter at Carpenter’s Shelter helps those who are sleeping on the streets. Open during the day, people can come into David’s Place to take a shower, do laundry, watch television, and stay warm during the winter months.
About 15 to 20 people go to David’s Place every day.
“I can tell you that Carpenter’s Shelter is hoping they will come into the emergency shelter,” Steene said. “There are more resources for them in our emergency shelter, but there’s also more accountability that’s asked of them.”
Residents at the Carpenter’s Shelter have a curfew and must either have or be looking for a job, among other expectations.
“It’s too much structure and they’re not quite ready for that, yet,” Steene said. “But Carpenter’s is, by its nature, optimistic in continuing to work with them so that they do trust us and they will sometimes come.”
Steene said the Carpenter’s Shelter is able to convince a few guests of David’s Place to move into Carpenter’s Shelter every year. When they are actually able to get placed into permanent housing, “it is the coolest thing,” he said.
The Carpenter’s Shelter serves residents three meals every day.
The temporary Carpenter’s Shelter within the old Macy’s does not have a full kitchen or a kitchen staff.
Instead, the shelter has a warming station, pantry, and the help of volunteers year-round.
Those volunteers help feed residents three meals every day of the year.
“There’s a regular parade of volunteers coming and going,” Steene said. “They’re bringing food in, they’re serving it and cleaning up after themselves, and so that means a lot of extra traffic coming in and out in order to make Carpenter shelter work.”
The pantry also serves as a grocery store of sorts when residents are preparing to leave the shelter.
“When we move people into permanent housing, we actually ask them to come in and do some, quote, shopping, here in the pantry,” Steene said. “We want to make sure that when they move into a new place, the first thing they don’t do is head out to the grocery store and spend money.”
He said the goal is to help residents fill their cupboards so they can get back into permanent housing as easily and stably as possible.
About a quarter of the Carpenter’s Shelter’s residents are children.
One rule that is pretty tightly enforced at the shelter is that children have to stay with their parents.
Steene said most of the children in the shelter are in preschool or elementary school. During Business Insider’s visit to the shelter, there were a few older teenagers. For them, the rules of the shelter can be difficult.
“You know, they feel like they’re 16, they shouldn’t have to follow Mummy everywhere they go,” said one mother in the shelter. “But are they dealing with it? Yeah, they’re dealing with it because they know this is only temporary, it’s not full-time.”
The Carpenter’s Shelter has operated a medical clinic in its facilities for more than 20 years thanks to the help of volunteer medical staff.
Healthcare can be pretty expensive, and people staying in a homeless shelter may not have the resources to pay for what they need.
That’s why the Carpenter’s Shelter has operated a small medical clinic in its facilities for the last 20 years.
“It’s small but mighty,” Steene said. “And we’re happy to be able to provide that service.”
The medical clinic at the Carpenter’s Shelter’s temporary location at the Landmark Mall looks like it could belong in a permanent doctor’s office. There’s an exam table, a medicine cabinet, a defibrillator, a blood pressure cuff, scales, and other medical equipment.
The clinic is entirely run by volunteers.
The Carpenter’s Shelter employs 17 full-time and nine part-time staff. Their offices are in the old Macy’s in the Landmark Mall, right off the main room where residents eat their meals.
The staff includes case managers, facilities coordinators, development associates, and a person who helps locate potential housing options.
When the staff was first told that their offices would be moved to the old Macy’s at the Landmark Mall, Copeland said she thought the idea was odd.
“At Christmastime, Shannon brought me and my staff here to see this space and I was like, I don’t get it. Like I just, I don’t get it,” Copeland said. “We are standing in the old women’s section, I can see the makeup counters, I can see that this was a Macy’s, I can see the doors pulled out, I can see the mall. I see the escalators, I don’t see how this is going to be a shelter.”
“But I came here about a week before we moved and I was like, I get it.”
Now that the staff has settled into their new offices, they don’t think about the site’s history as much. They’re thinking about their core mission: helping their residents.
“My goal is singular, my staff’s goal is singular: move you out of shelter as quickly as possible,” Copeland said.
In addition to the full- and part-time staff, Carpenter’s Shelter operates with the help of about 1,200 volunteers every year. The volunteers help with career counseling, serving meals, and giving medical checkups, among other things.
The Macy’s location won’t be its home forever. The new Carpenter’s Shelter will be built on the site of their previous home at the old DMV.
The Carpenter’s Shelter broke ground on its new building a few weeks ago.
The new building will include a shelter on the ground floor, with many of the same amenities that can be found at the Macy’s location.
The new building will also include 97 affordable housing units above the shelter, a much-needed addition in Alexandria.
Alexandria has lost about 90% of its affordable housing stock since 2000.
“When people ask us, ‘Why are people homeless?’ It’s because they have nowhere to live that they can afford,” Copeland said. And you fix that by creating more affordable housing.”
According to statistics from the city, rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city has gone up more than 90% in the same time period that the affordable housing stock has dramatically decreased.
“There are about 15 full-time staff here,” Copeland says she tells residents. “There’s only two people who can afford to live here in the city of Alexandria. And we get paid, you know, pretty decent salaries.”
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