Metro

Boston unveils new shelter to house homeless

In fast work, city tries to ease crisis

Three weeks ago, asbestos tiles covered the floors and many of the windows were cracked or drafty. Grimy paint peeled off plaster walls also filled with asbestos, and an array of bulky tools littered the old workshop where for decades city workers made signs, meters, and traffic lights.

Since then, in a feat of unparalleled speed for any previous city building, the Boston Transportation Department’s old sign shop has been transformed into the city’s new shelter for the homeless — with $2 million worth of new floors, walls, plumbing, lighting, fire alarms, sheetrock, paint, electrical and heating systems, and much more.

City officials on Tuesday plan to open the doors of the two-story brick building on Southampton Street to 100 men. By April, at greater expense, they hope to house most of the 700 people displaced from Long Island after engineers in October condemned an old bridge to the island on Boston Harbor and shuttered the city’s largest shelter.

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“We’re going to have a state-of-the-art facility — probably the best in the country for the homeless,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in an exclusive tour of the new refuge, which is across the street from Boston Fire Department headquarters in the city’s Newmarket section.

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Under normal circumstances, Walsh said, it would take more than a year just to get the architectural drawings and permitting done for such a project. A full renovation on this scale could take years.

“We had to do this quickly,” he said. “The people need this place.”

The work, however, began after more than two months of indecision, while hundreds of men and women who had previously stayed on Long Island slept on cots and mats in cramped conditions. The temporary shelters set up in a South End gym, the old city morgue, and in the dining room and atrium of another shelter had been designed to house the homeless for at most six weeks. (Those temporary shelters are where hundreds will remain until the new facility is completed.)

City officials at first said they were planning to build a shelter on a Public Works Department lot beside Interstate 93 in the South End, but they announced in December that they would instead renovate the centrally located, 45,000-square-foot Transportation building.

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Surveying the work on Friday, Walsh said he was happy he had waited to find the right space. The closure of Long Island, he said, could ultimately be a “blessing.”

He promised that the new shelter, beyond providing a temporary refuge, would be a model facility that will offer counseling and a range of services to help the homeless.

“I hope homeless people understand the care and compassion that went into building this place and that they know that people really care about the homeless in Boston,” he said.

It remains unclear whether the shelter will permanently replace the center on Long Island, he said, or whether the city will ultimately build a new bridge. But if the city does rebuild, it would take years and the new shelter will serve the homeless at least until then.

The work has been done over the past two weeks by three private contractors — Turner Construction, Suffolk Construction, and Gilbane — which have employed teams of carpenters, pipefitters, plumbers

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, ironworkers, electricians, and sprinkler fitters. Over the past two weeks, as many as 60 people have been on the job at a time, working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

City officials overseeing the work insisted that the breakneck pace did not involve cutting corners.

“We can’t close any walls until the inspections have been done,” said Brian Melia, the shelter’s project manager from the city’s Department of Property and Construction Management.

City officials said they did not know the eventual cost of completing the shelter in April, when it should be able to house and provide meals from a new kitchen to 490 men. Homeless women will be accommodated at the nearby Woods Mullen Shelter, which is also undergoing renovations.

The new shelter can’t open quickly enough, officials said; temperatures have plunged, and outreach workers have reported record numbers of people sleeping on the streets.

“We’re in an emergency — a crisis state,” said Felix G. Arroyo, the city’s chief of Health and Human Services. “The contractors, the workers, the city staff, they all know that, and that’s how they’re operating.”

On Friday, workers had lined up bunk beds, which had been ferried over from the Long Island shelter, and arranged them in rows in the building’s garage, where they planned to repaint them before moving them to the second floor.

Some vestiges of the building’s former occupant remain. There were doors still stenciled with “Sign Shop” and the walls of the lobby are adorned in the original marble. Much of the first floor is now an empty space that the contractors will fully renovate in the coming weeks.

On the second floor, where the first 100 men will move in this week, contractors stood on ladders and fed pipes and wires through new ducts and ceiling tiles. Others were painting and preparing the bathrooms for new toilets and showers.

They were also working on a new dining area, where the men will receive meals for the next few months from the Pine Street Inn, as well as space for workshops, employment training, and offices to meet with case managers.

The work will continue after the men move in, but at a slower pace, stopping during sleeping hours.

On Monday, city officials said inspectors from the Fire Department and the Inspectional Services Department will do a final walk-through and decide whether to grant an occupancy permit to the Boston Public Health Commission, which will run the shelter.

As he reviewed the work, Dr. Huy Nguyen, executive director of the commission, said he was impressed by what the city had accomplished in such a short time.

“It’s unbelievable to me,” he said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.