Some days while Fran Becker was walking the cinderblock halls of the homeless shelter she runs in Alexandria, the little girl inside her used to daydream: What would she do with $1 million?

She imagined building classrooms onto the 80-bed Carpenter's Shelter on North Henry Street, where the homeless could learn to read. Buying computers so they could learn spreadsheets and typing. Hiring someone to help residents find good homes.

And then, six months ago, a thunderstruck Becker walked out of an Alexandria office with a check for $1 million.

The out-of-the-blue gift was from a wealthy real estate development family.

"My little girl has been wishing for all this," said Becker, who is only now growing accustomed to the shelter's suddenly fat bank account.

While the wealth may have appeared overnight, the changes Becker hopes it will bring will take much, much longer. The money will help Carpenter's Shelter continue its transformation into something far more comprehensive than a place for homeless people to grab a bed and a meal.

In the past 20 years, since the issue thrust itself into the public conscience, homelessness has gotten more complicated.

The homeless shelter has evolved from a cot-filled warehouse for those known as the chronic homeless -- people with addictions or mental illnesses who stayed for short periods. Today's shelters often are more permanent facilities that house families with more complicated problems and who might need the shelter and its services for years.

An estimated 15,439 people were homeless in the region last year, according to a count by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Almost half were families and a third were employed.

As Northern Virginia's largest homeless shelter, Carpenter's mirrors the trend in homelessness. In the 1980s, many of the shelter's residents were unemployed, single adults housed in a church basement.

These days, the comfortable facility, built in 1999, focuses more on families, often single mothers with children, who present a complex alloy of issues.

They are frequently young, with several children from different fathers. They often grew up in families on welfare and saw few adults who worked for a living, Carpenter's counselors say.

Some have fled partner abuse or are struggling with substance abuse. And virtually all have poor literacy skills and little work history.

"You're taking people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder," said Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of Homes for the Homeless, which runs shelters similar to Carpenter's in New York. "They need parenting skills, work skills. They need socialization skills."

To get residents in shape for the world outside Carpenter's Shelter, the facility offers a rigorous regimen of mandatory classes, counseling, tutoring and other programs that Becker calls "tough love." She sees the $1 million bequest as a way to expand such programs.

Those who stay at the shelter are required to be employed or looking for work. And they are required to deposit 70 percent of their earnings in an escrow account.

The program is necessary, residents say, but not always pleasant.

"It's something to get adjusted to," said Moneek Terry, 36, a soft-voiced mother of two teenagers who moved into the shelter two months ago. But, she said, "I can understand them trying to help you get stabilized again. And they try to help you become more responsible."

Five case managers work with residents and their children, helping them develop plans for life after the shelter.

On Thursday night, shelter counselor Dan Hilton, an imposing man dressed in sneakers and sweats, strode around Carpenter's cafeteria as he taught its weekly life skills class.

His voice boomed over the chatter of children as residents, sitting at tables, displayed varying degrees of attentiveness. Hilton also runs the shelter's extensive program that offers counseling and classes to former shelter residents.

"If I'm late for work," he told his audience, "guess what? My boss might fire me."

But, he said, "I know this for a fact. If you miss too many days of work, it's really hard to pay the rent, isn't it?"

At the same time, a half-dozen of the shelter's teenagers were gathered in the facility's conference room with a counselor, clustered around two laptop computers and swapping stories on the struggles of homeless adolescence.

These days, Becker and the facility's board of directors are busy planning how to use the $1 million, which came from the Hoffman Family Trust, the charitable arm of a prominent family that made its fortune in the Alexandria real estate market. So far, they've set up a scholarship program for clients who want more education, and they've renamed the shelter the Hubert N. Hoffman Jr. Center for Homeless Families, after the now-deceased scion of the family.

They've also resolved to reshape the shelter into a comprehensive center of learning, focused on moving homeless people into living without assistance from the community.

That way, Becker would get her classrooms and her computers -- and maybe even her housing expert.

But, she says, she has much more imagining to do.

Erica Austin, with 8-month-old Madison, talks with Fran Becker, executive director of Alexandria's Carpenter's Shelter.Shelter Deputy Director Mary Martin, left, leads a discussion with those the program has helped as Yahaira Paduan listens.