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Shelter for homeless displaced from Long Island expands

The facility originally opened in January for 100 men. It can now house more than 400 men.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

Eight months after abruptly closing the city’s largest homeless shelter on Long Island, city officials on Monday opened a nearly complete new shelter in the Newmarket area of Boston, ending a purgatory for hundreds of men who slept in cramped quarters in a South End gym and at other shelters.

The new refuge on Southampton Street, which opened to about 100 men in January, can now house more than 400 in a refurbished city building.

Construction crews were still working Monday afternoon on the multimillion-dollar renovation of the building, previously the Boston Transportation Department’s sign shop, just hours before the city was expecting lines of men to fill rows of newly repainted bunk beds ferried in from Long Island.


The shelter was initially scheduled to open in April, but city officials ran into construction delays and were forced to keep about 250 men sleeping on cots and mats beneath the bright lights of a basketball court at the South End Fitness Center.

“The shelter at Southampton Street will transform lives and represents the best that we are as a community,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.

He said the new shelter will offer “more abundant and better integrated” support services than the homeless received at their former refuge on Boston Harbor, which was closed in October after city officials condemned the old, rickety bridge leading to Long Island.

When all its offices open, the shelter will offer services including mental health and addiction counseling, health checkups, case management, and help finding housing, Walsh said.

City officials declined to allow the Globe to tour the new shelter on Monday, saying they were too busy.

Some residents who had been inside said there was still a lot of work left to do on what city officials have previously said was a $6 million project. It was unclear how much the completed project will end up costing.


Before the first residents moved in last January, asbestos tiles covered the floors and many of the windows were cracked or drafty. Grimy paint peeled off plaster walls filled with asbestos, and an array of bulky tools littered the old workshop where for decades city workers made signs, meters, and traffic lights.

The city rapidly transformed the building’s second floor to welcome the first 100 men, installing new floors, walls, plumbing, lighting, and a range of new systems and alarms. (The nearby Woods Mullen Shelter will be reserved for homeless women.)

In March, the last time the Globe was allowed to enter the building, the larger first floor remained very much a construction zone: Electrical wires and other utility cables hung from the rafters, and pockmarks scarred bare, unpainted walls.

City officials said much of the first floor is now finished, allowing them to house an additional 300 men and provide new offices for staff.

“It’s about time,” said David Carpenter, 50, who has been homeless for the past three years and lived on Long Island when city officials closed the bridge.

He and others said it was tough living at the South End Fitness Center, where cots and mats were arranged within a few feet of each other, it was often too hot, and some complained of an insufficient number of toilets.

“It’s been hard,” said Carpenter, as he waited outside the new shelter. “We’re hoping this will be better.”


Others said they worried about fights over beds as the men adjusted to the new space and questioned some rules of the new shelter, such as lights being left on in dormitories all night.

“It can’t be much worse that the fitness center,” said Richard Nielsen, 49, who has been homeless for nine years and also lived on Long Island before it closed. “It’s shocking we were there for so long. The conditions were appalling.”

The final phase of the project, which city officials said would be complete this year, will add space for a clinic and a large kitchen.

Over the next few days, the city will close the fitness center as a homeless shelter and stop paying to house others at the Boston Rescue Mission and Boston’s Health Care for the Homeless.

As homeless men thronged to the new shelter Monday afternoon, contractors were using a bucket ladder to install aluminum siding on the building. A van carrying asbestos remediation workers was parked in the driveway.

While some may miss the tranquility of the island, which provided the homeless a respite from roaming city streets, Louis Ramirez, who moved in earlier this year, said nostalgia shouldn’t cloud anyone’s appreciation for what the city has built. “There will always be people who complain, but this place is 100 percent better than what we had on Long Island,” he said. “There’s a lot to appreciate.”


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