Trailing the flashing lights of a police escort, the city bus completed its journey in front of a bleak building in the South End, where more officers and guards were waiting.
Out filed some of the 700 former residents of Long Island, where the city’s largest homeless shelter operated until earlier this month — before officials condemned the only bridge leading to the refuge on Boston Harbor.
Now, the city’s homeless pack into a former fitness center, while city officials hastily seek a more permanent solution to the loss of about one-third of the city’s available beds.
They live in cramped, disorienting conditions with fewer amenities and social services than they had on Long Island. Instead of beds, they sleep on pillowless cots, set inches apart in a windowless room. Bright lights stay on all night. There are long lines to use the two bathrooms. Fans swirl humid air.
On one recent night, Cleve Rea, an unemployed software developer, was among the crowd of ex-convicts, recovering addicts, and others filing into the improvised shelter. Dragging all his worldly possessions in a rolling bag, Rea followed the group into their temporary home for the next few weeks, the South End Fitness Center, a city-owned facility where officials spent two harried days replacing free weights and cardio machines with cots and mats.
“Some people here say it’s like being in a prison,” said Rea, 58, who recently became homeless after struggling with bipolar disorder and getting divorced.
“This has been a very destabilizing time for us,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on.”
The balding man with a gray beard lugged his bag up three flights, which officials lined with orange traffic cones and yellow caution tape to prevent the less sure-footed from taking an unwanted plunge.
Staff pat down and wave a metal detector around the new arrivals – in some cases, for the second time – in search of weapons, needles, and other contraband.
On walls throughout the new shelter, there were signs listing 36 forbidden items and behaviors. In addition to banning illicit drugs and alcohol, hats and hoods are never to be worn; prescribed medication must be in the original package, inscribed with the guest’s name; physical contact, verbal abuse, cutting lines, failure to return towels, using cell phones, and nudity are all grounds for being ejected. Guests aren’t allowed to store anything there when they leave.
In an adjacent room, medical staff from the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program had created a temporary infirmary, where they were offering free flu shots. In another erstwhile exercise room, now stocked with toiletries, underwear, and collared shirts for those going on job interviews, social workers were on newly installed landlines and laptops, seeking housing and other services for the homeless.
As Rea passed the main desk, he stood in a line to check in. Shortly afterward, another social worker, wearing a fluorescent vest like the other staff, inspected Rea’s ID and issued him a ticket with a bed number that was good for a shower, dinner, and breakfast.
Some later arrivals would only get a mat to sleep on.
In the sprawling, windowless gym, where city workers spread cardboard along the floor to protect the basketball court, Rea passed rows of metal-framed cots, each with a freshly laundered sheet and blanket.
When he found cot No. 75, just inches from the surrounding cots, he took a deep breath.
“The end of the bed is broken,” he said with a sigh.
Asked how he’s coping with the transition, he said: “It’s been challenging. It’s a lot tighter quarters than what we had at Long Island.”
But he didn’t want to complain. “It could be a heck of a lot worse,” he said.
Others were more than willing to vent.
Lounging on a nearby cot, Richard Francis called the conditions “inhumane.”
He groused about smelly feet too close to his head; the overhead lights that stay on all night; the lack of decent air circulation; showers that don’t always work; lukewarm food brought in from the outside; and the need for more than two toilets. Both stalls, he noted, lacked doors, so staff could keep an eye for any junkies.
“This is a violation of our human rights,” said Francis, 76, who said conditions were much better on Long Island. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
On another nearby cot, David Ferreira was sweating through his T-shirt because of the heat. He also grumbled about the incessant snoring, the foul smells, and the uncomfortable cots, all of which has made it hard to sleep.
But he, too, preferred not to protest.
“They’re doing the best they can to accommodate us under the circumstances,” he said. “I have to tip my hat to them.”
Officials from the Boston Public Health Commission Homeless Services Bureau acknowledged that the conditions remain less than ideal.
They noted how they began bringing men from their recovery programs to the Fitness Center within hours after the city evacuated the island. Two days later, they set up a complex operation to provide meals, health care, and many other necessities beyond shelter for 250 men.
They knew the bridge was in bad shape, but they had never expected the city to close the Long Island shelter – which had been undergoing more than $2 million in renovations – indefinitely. They had planned only for a brief closure of the bridge for maintenance.
“This is what we have right now,” said Liz Henderson, operations administrator at the new shelter, adding she hoped the city would find longer-term space soon. “We’re doing with what we have.”
When it was his turn for dinner, Rea took his rolling bag with all his possessions – three pairs of jeans, two collared shirts, four pairs of socks, six pairs of underwear and undershirts, and an electronic reader – and waited in another line.
The staff piled his Styrofoam plate with Hawaiian chicken, rice, and mixed vegetables. There was also mac and cheese, fruit, Danishes, tea, and bottled water.
When he sat down, he smiled. “I appreciate this,” he said.
He had taken only one shower in the last week, he said, because he didn’t want to leave his bag unattended. And he said the long lines for the two toilets are a challenge at his age.
But after losing a series of jobs, two divorces, and with only $15 left in his checking account, he said, he’s happy to have a roof and a warm place to sleep.
“One of the things that bothers me is that a lot of people just don’t appreciate what they have,” he said.
After dinner, having trouble falling asleep, he went outside for a smoke and fresh air.
When he finally settled in after midnight, he stirred for a few hours under the overhead lights to the sounds of coughs and mumbling.
Before long, it was time to get up.
He was back on the streets before dawn.