New London - Mark Irish was the first to check into the new 50-bed Homeless Hospitality Center on State Pier Road Tuesday night. He chose a bed in the corner of the dormitory-style room, next to a window.
Not so he can open the window on the third floor of the former church or because he wanted more light, he said. He just didn't want to be in a bed in the center of the room.
"It's near an outlet," said Irish, who said he liked the smell of the new wood and paint in the renovated space.
Earlier Tuesday, a dozen volunteers from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton hauled mattresses, beds and shelves out of St. James Episcopal Church, where the shelter has been housed for the past seven years, and moved the furniture less than half a mile to the new shelter at the former Sts. Peter & Paul Polish Church.
Starting at about 6 p.m., workers began driving guests, six at a time, from St. James to the new shelter.
"It's going. Slow going," said Cathy Zall, executive director, as she sat at a desk at the entrance to the three-story facility. Facing a video monitor with various images of the shelter's nooks and crannies, and armed with spreadsheets with bed assignments, locks for the two rows of new orange lockers and forms for guests to sign, Zall tried to keep order.
"Go upstairs, pick a bed, then come down and tell me the number," she directed the guests as they lined up with their bags. "I'll give you a locker and a lock when you come back down. No drugs, no alcohol, no food in the lockers."
More than 50 men and women moved into the shelter Tuesday. About half were regulars with assigned bunks, which means they stay at the shelter at least five nights a week and meet strict criteria for living there. Others were known to the staff but don't stay there on a regular basis. A handful were brand-new and were sitting at tables in the day room waiting to be processed.
The shelter has a no-freeze policy, meaning no one is turned away on cold nights.
Melissa Roy, one of the regulars, works for LV Computer Solutions in New London. She was on the women's side of the sleeping room, putting clean sheets on her top bunk, plugging in her cellphone charger and pushing a bag of belongings under the bed.
Every few minutes, she had to step out of the way as other guests passed by, hauling backpacks, pillows and plastic bags filled with bed linens.
"It's chaos," Roy said.
"First, they said we were moving in the morning. Then they said we're moving tonight," she said, losing her train of thought and apologizing as she struggled to make the bed in a room where she would be sleeping with 24 other women.
"That's what happens when you move into a new place - you get frazzled," she said.
But Roy, who has gone through three bad marriages, lost a few jobs and two apartments, is grateful for a warm place to stay.
"It's not easy being homeless. I don't want to be homeless," she said. Her plan, now that she has earned her high school diploma and is working, is eventually to move to Virginia, where her fiance lives.
Construction on the $1.2 million project has been ongoing for the past year. Workers divided up the sanctuary and added walls, ceilings, floors and bathrooms with showers to the former church. Sleeping quarters are on the third floor. A day center is on the main floor and the basement houses a 10-bed medical respite center.
The former rectory, which includes a room where the few remaining members of the Polish National Church attend services on Sundays, has offices, meeting rooms and a kitchen. Programs that help the homeless with medical and mental health issues and with finding permanent housing will be located there. There is also a laundry room.
"It may be a little tight, but it's comfortable," said Charles Boyd Jr., director of operations. "Everyone's feeling good about it already."
For Larry Seckley, a cook whose goal is to get a full-time job, make back child support payments and eventually find a permanent place to live, the new shelter is an improvement.
"It's clean," he said, quickly adding that the old shelter in the community room at St. James wasn't dirty. But the new shelter has a place for the homeless to spend time during the day and staff in place to help with job applications, he said.
"And they treat me fairly and they treat me with respect," he said.
The overnight shelter at St. James is now closed, as is the day center at 19 Jay St. All services will be housed at the new facility. There is also a van that will transport guests from the shelter to meal centers and to medical appointments.