EMERYVILLE — Private shopping sprees typically are reserved for the rich and famous. But the giddy young people piling their arms high with free Forever 21 merchandise were neither — they were from a local homeless shelter.
“I’ve never done anything like it before!” said one young woman as she poured over the jewelry display, selecting a necklace of rainbow beads to go with the marigold dress slung over her arm. “It’s just amazing. Especially from not really having much, to be able to pick whatever I want.”
When Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy last year, it left behind all of the clothes, shoes and accessories in its store at Emeryville’s Bay Street shopping center, in accordance with a court agreement. The mall needed to find something to do with the items, and management soon landed on a solution: donate everything to Covenant House, a homeless shelter for young people in the East Bay.
The merchandise would go to the group’s clothing closet, where residents and other young people in need can choose whatever items they want.
But first, Covenant House staff decided to let three of their young people have a little fun. Those lucky three — chosen because they have steady jobs and are doing well in the Covenant program — were unleashed in the empty store for one hour earlier this month, and told to take anything, and everything, they wanted.
For 22-year-old A.R. — the woman who picked out the rainbow necklace — the shopping spree was a chance to get clothes to make her feel more professional at work. She’s been living at Covenant House in Oakland for more than a year, and arrived at the shelter with one bag and about two outfits. Before the shopping spree, she was showing up for her job at a San Francisco retail store in leggings, because she owned nothing else, and borrowing T-shirts from the store to wear during her shift.
Now, she said, she’ll have something better to wear to work. Halfway through her shopping spree, she was already dressed head-to-toe in new clothes — a gray beanie, skinny jeans and a hoodie emblazoned with colorful news headlines.
This news organization is referring to A.R. by her initials in keeping with Covenant House’s policy of not naming its residents.
Getting a new wardrobe means a lot to these young people, said Brian Bob, director of community involvement for Covenant House.
“It’s a good feeling sometimes to have something new, and something fresh and something clean,” he said. “It makes you just kind of feel better about yourself. And I think we all understand that in our own personal lives.”
Covenant House provides shelter, social services and help finding permanent housing to clients ages 13 to 24. The group has three Bay Area shelters that house up to 92 people — two in Oakland and one in Berkeley.
Covenant House in the East Bay planned to share the Forever 21 bounty with the organization’s branch in Los Angeles, Bob said.
As the three young people cruised the store, each wearing a black Bay Street-branded facemask as a precaution against coronavirus, Lucas Heller, the mall’s general manager, watched with a smile.
“It’s great,” he said. “These kids are wonderful — to see the excitement in their eyes, to see the energy, and them building confidence as well.”
A.R. was feeling that excitement.
“Every time I’ve really shopped here before, it’s been on discount,” she said. “So now I get to shop not on the discount rack. It kind of makes me feel special a little bit.”