A Virginia homeless shelter finds a temporary home in an abandoned Macy’s
While a new building is being constructed, Carpenter's Shelter staff and residents can call this shuttered mall in suburban D.C. home.
Unbelievable things happen every day at the Carpenter’s Shelter. As we accompany people on the journey from homelessness to securely housed, emotions run high. We feel the grief and anxiety of a new family arriving at our door after their once stable lives have fallen apart. We celebrate the joy and pride of a resident discovering a new home and realizing that, after months of hard work, they have the ability to maintain it for years to come.
Over the last 30 years, Carpenter’s Shelter has had the privilege of guiding our homeless neighbors through these transitions. More recently, we have learned firsthand the deeper meaning of finding a forever home.
After years of careful consideration, Carpenter’s Shelter developed an ambitious plan to redevelop our property, owned outright, on the north end of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. We partnered with the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation and drafted blueprints of a modern, multistory building with a 60-bed, purpose-built homeless shelter and nearly 100 affordable apartments. We practically glowed with the thought of investing in a long-term solution to homelessness. Then the realization hit—in order to begin demolition and construction, our year-round operations would need to find a temporary facility for nearly two years.
My initial thoughts on this task had a common theme: This is impossible! But, as I walked the halls of our shelter, watching our residents progress in leaps and bounds, I realized that Carpenter’s Shelter is no stranger to making the seemingly impossible possible.
The history of Carpenter’s Shelter is punctuated with unconventional and humble accommodations. We got our start in a local church basement, moved into one and then another warehouse space, and finally settled in a retrofitted Department of Motor Vehicles building for two decades. This time, we would need to think outside the box and spend minimally to preserve funds for our new, permanent location.
It’s clear to me that Carpenter’s Shelter isn’t defined by a building or a physical space—it is living and breathing.
A team of staff and volunteers assembled to meet the challenges ahead. Fortunately, Carpenter’s Shelter engages more than 1,200 volunteers a year, so the combined brain trust more than met our needs! We brought together the former Mayor of Alexandria, a retired land use attorney, the former head of the economic development authority, a commercial real estate developer, and a real estate broker. To order our thinking, we formalized our base requirements in a Request For Proposals, which facilitated conversations with property owners and brokers in the community.
Everyone brought their creativity, expertise, and networks to the table. After more than a year of what felt like wheel spinning, pieces of a plan began to come together. Numerous attempted contacts with a major national corporation—previously unacknowledged—now generated conversation. As we talked, merging nonprofit mission with business acumen, ideas became action. Soon, we leased space in a shuttered Macy’s, created architectural renderings, and hired a general contractor to transform an old retail floor into a refuge for homeless families and individuals. The seemingly improbable was taking shape before our eyes.
After six months, the transition from the ladieswear department to a temporary home for those in need was complete. We successfully relocated operations to this interim space and continue to provide uninterrupted services. For most of our current residents, this is the only Carpenter’s Shelter they’ve ever known. For staff and volunteers, the temporary space may not be ideal, but it is more than adequate for a few short years. It’s clear to everyone that Carpenter’s Shelter has moved forward. It’s clear to me that Carpenter’s Shelter isn’t defined by a building or a physical space—it is living and breathing.
It’s hard to miss the parallels between our story that those of our residents. Like so many of them, we lost our longtime physical home and struggled to find the temporary shelter we needed. With a team of dedicated experts, we explored our resources, made a plan, and came find a place that could meet our needs while we laid a foundation for our future. Now, I look around and see staff and volunteers dedicated to the values and culture that make us unique. I see residents working together, families growing strong. I see Carpenter’s Shelter, the community.