City opens upgraded homeless shelter on Southampton Street
For the past three months, Kenneth Evans contorted his lanky body as well as he could to sleep on a narrow, aluminum-framed cot beneath bright lights in a sprawling gym packed with more then 200 other homeless men.
This week, for the first time since he and others were hurriedly evacuated from their shelter on Long Island in early October and crowded into the South End Fitness Center, Evans got a decent night’s sleep.
The 42-year-old was one of 100 men who tucked into the far more comfortable beds – with new blankets and sheets – on the fully renovated second floor of the city’s new shelter on Southampton Street.
“I slept really well,” he said while Mayor Martin J. Walsh led local officials, advocates, and reporters on a tour of the facility on Thursday. “We were really ready to get off those cots. They weren’t made to sleep on that long.”
Less than a month ago, the brick building housed the Boston Transportation Department’s old sign shop. Asbestos tiles covered the floors and many of the windows were cracked. 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.
Over the past few weeks, the city moved the entire department and all its equipment out of the building, which is just across the street from Boston Fire Department headquarters in the Newmarket neighborhood.
By Tuesday, in a feat of unparalleled speed for any previous city building, the second floor had been completely transformed. Teams of private contractors working late into the nights installed $2 million worth of new floors, walls, plumbing, lighting, fire alarms, sheetrock, paint, electrical and heating systems, and much more.
When the homeless arrived for the first time on Tuesday night, they found a gleaming facility, a space that under normal circumstance would have taken more than a year to design and build.
The bunk beds, which were shipped from Long Island, were all made, as if at a hotel, and the old frames painted black. Just-completed bathrooms sparkled with new fixtures. Soft, energy efficient lights from the ceiling brightened newly painted walls.
There were circular tables set up by a flat screen television, and a serving area, where the men will eat breakfast and dinner. Board games were stacked by a newly built counselor’s station. New signs appeared everywhere — illuminating exits, bathrooms, sprinklers.
Evans opened a door and showed off a kitchen, with a new stove, refrigerator, and cabinets.
“This is a blessing,” he said. “At Long Island, all we had was a microwave.”
The shelter opened after months of indecision about where to house 700 homeless men and women following a decision on Oct. 8 by city engineers to condemn the bridge leading to the refuge on Boston Harbor.
Many of them have stayed in temporary shelters on cots and mats since then. Most will continue to stay there until the new shelter is finished in April, when it will house as many as 490 men. The women will stay at another shelter.
Before leading the tour, Walsh thanked the private contractors — Turner Construction, Suffolk Construction, and Gilbane Building — that employed the teams of carpenters, pipefitters, plumbers, ironworkers, electricians, and sprinkler fitters that did the work.
“This is one of our greatest accomplishments,” he said. “This is the most important thing we can do as the city of Boston — to make sure that we take care of the people in our city who need the help the most.”
The shelter bears wall-length posters of cityscapes, including the Zakim Bridge and the Boston Common, with quotes from Walsh.
One read: “We are a city of second chances and redemption, a place where hard times have forged character throughout our history.”
Another read: “We are in this together, every man, woman, and child. For our seniors and our students, for rich and poor, and everyone in between.”
As he walked around the 45,000-square-foot building, Evans oozed pride.
“It exceeds my expectations,” he said.
The wait to sleep in a bed was longer than he expected, and there were many nights when he twisted and turned more than he slept, his knees banging against the metal frame of his cot as he tried to get comfortable. The sounds of snoring from so many other men in such close proximity also kept him up at night.
He said there remain some kinks to be worked out at the new shelter.
The lights are still too bright at night, and he looks forward to the day when food is cooked in the building, rather than brought in from outside.
But the new place has made it feel like there are people who care for him and the other homeless men, he said.
“I fell in love with the place right away,” he said.