The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The future of suburban homelessness? As malls empty, an old Macy’s becomes a homeless shelter.

A vacant Macy’s has been transformed into a homeless shelter in Alexandria, Va. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Everyone at first thought it was a joke.

It was the summer of 2015, and Carpenter’s Shelter was facing a big dilemma. A developer had offered to remake the Alexandria shelter, housed in an old Department of Motor Vehicles building on North Henry Street, into a modern space that would not only have the capacity to shelter more homeless people, but also offer affordable housing. The shelter’s board of directors wanted to move forward, but it could not get past the most important issue of all: What would happen to the homeless people already there? Carpenter’s needed 18 months for the renovation. In the meantime, where would the homeless go? Where would they live?

“How about Landmark Mall,” somebody suddenly suggested at a task-force meeting to discuss the issue, and everyone laughed at the thought of a shelter at a shopping mall.

What began as a joke, however, soon became a plan, and then a construction site and, finally, inside a vacant Macy’s, a homeless shelter, where Carpenter’s executive director Shannon Steene has his office in a corner that had until recently been home to women’s active apparel.

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Inside the space, the department store feels far away, but hints are still there: the scuffed tiles and gray carpeting, the mirrored columns, the vast parking lot, the giant sign where someone did a poor job of painting over the Macy’s name and the customers who come by every now and then looking to do some shopping but instead finding homeless people.

The idea that spurred this transformation represents a new way of thinking that is bringing together three economic phenomena: the collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail industry, the disappearance of affordable housing in America’s boom towns, and the struggle to reduce homelessness, which remains as intractable as ever.

“The fact is that there will be millions upon millions of square feet of retail space that are not going to be used over the next five years . . . and they can be used for all kinds of things,” including sheltering the homeless or raising the stock of affordable housing, said Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail practice at Syracuse University. “I think it would be an inspired idea.”

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Developers and city officials, both in the Washington region and beyond, are starting to agree. “We were having this conversation,” said Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, an organization that houses homeless people, recalling one recent talk with a real estate broker. “And he asked, ‘We have this empty business park space. Could you use it?’ “ She said the same concerns remain as with any housing proposal — access to public transportation, schools and employment — but she was excited people are “talking about creative things that can be done.”

Carpenter’s, however, had to move beyond creative talk and into reality, a prospect that at first struck Steene as “completely crazy.” So he looked elsewhere. He searched all over Alexandria for someplace that had enough room to fit 60 beds, had at least 10 rooms and was within walking distance of public transportation. All the motels within the appropriate zoning areas where a homeless shelter could operate were no-gos. Becoming increasingly desperate and worried that the opportunity to redevelop the shelter was slipping away, Steele returned in early 2017 to the idea that had been laughed off.

The Macy’s at Landmark Mall had just closed, one of the dozens of outlets the retail behemoth has slated to shutter, and was sold off to the Howard Hughes Corp., based in Dallas. There, a senior official named Mark Bulmash, who had grown up in Flint, Mich., and knew what it meant to be poor, received an interesting proposition. Could the homeless move in? The company’s agenda was to redevelop the entire space, but those plans were years away, and, meanwhile, all of that empty space would be just sitting there.

“It would have been silly not to help,” Bulmash said. So he did, even throwing in free rent.

The first time Steene went into the Macy’s — not as a customer, but as a shelter director — he walked amid all of the checkout counters and service signs and mirrored columns and wondered whether they could pull it off.

Blair Copeland, a Carpenter’s Shelter director of case management, remembered thinking at the time: “I didn’t see how we were going to live in a Macy’s. There were mannequins.”

They had funding for 12 weeks of construction. Twelve weeks to gut the building of all that was Macy’s and then in its place build bedrooms, install bathrooms and furnish a recreation room and cafeteria. Twelve weeks to make the uninhabitable habitable.

Then it was the second week of June, and those 12 weeks were past, and the homeless were moving into the new shelter, and in another part of town, 27-year-old Kanisha Williams was growing tired of crashing on her friend’s couch. Her newborn son, Zion, was crying through every night. Zion’s father, Montee Higdon, 29, jailed on a trespassing charge, was about to be released, and the three of them needed more space. So they went to the family services center, with which both were well acquainted.

Higdon, who has bipolar disorder, and Williams had been homeless for about a decade. Throughout that time, Williams had worked low-paying jobs at places from McDonald’s to Macy’s, where she had been paid $8 an hour to move items into clearance.

Now they were standing at family services, and staffers were telling Williams there was an opening for her family at the very same Macy’s where she had worked in 2014.

“It was a laugh,” Higdon said. “I had to double-take and ask her: ‘Are you talking about the Landmark Mall? On Duke Street?’”

“Walking through those doors,” Williams said, “those were the doors I used to leave out of when I clocked out. So walking in, at first it was like a Macy’s vibe. But as soon as I’d seen it, it went away. It went from a clothing store to a store that’s actually helping people get on their feet.”

That night, for one of the first times in his life, Zion slept until morning without crying.

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