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Tents long gone, but Mass. and Cass crime still a big problem

People continue to congregate in the Mass. and Cass area, which is home to many social service programs, including two methadone clinics and two homeless shelters.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Two men were charged with human sex trafficking in the area of Mass. and Cass over the last week, the latest incidents to underscore neighbors’ concerns that the area remains plagued by vagrancy, crime, and open-air drug use after a sprawling homeless encampment was cleared in January.

Reyes Familia, 30, of Malden, allegedly kidnapped a woman who tried to buy drugs from him, held her captive for several months, and forced her to work as a prostitute in the area around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, prosecutors said in court documents. He was charged with kidnapping, rape, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon for allegedly stabbing the woman.

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Meanwhile, a Boston man was arrested Wednesday night after he allegedly tried to coerce two undercover police officers he thought were prostitutes on Massachusetts Avenue into working for him, suggesting they offer sex for a fee at a nearby hotel.

“Do you all do that pimp [work]?” Keon Boggs allegedly told the undercover police officers, Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Calen Monahan said at Boggs’s arraignment Thursday.

When the officers told Boggs they did not know any pimps, he allegedly responded, “You know me now.”

Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden called both Boggs and Familia “human-weakness predators” who made Mass. and Cass “their personal playground of mayhem and exploitation.”

“They victimize those with mental health or substance abuse disorders, or homelessness issues, or any number of factors that make them vulnerable,” he said. “And they do it for one reason only: to line their pockets with money.”

After his arrest, Boggs told authorities that he lives in the homeless shelter at 112 Southampton St., underscoring neighborhood concerns that many of the people who seek social services and support in the area are the same ones committing crimes and preying on vulnerable victims, what they called a vicious cycle of violence that for years has plagued Mass. and Cass.

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Community leaders reiterated those concerns during a meeting with Boston officials Thursday night and renewed calls for the city to move some services such as shelters and needle exchange programs to other neighborhoods. The only way to undo the pervasive problems in the area, they stressed, is to disrupt the flow of people who flock there — whether for social services or to use drugs or other illegal activity.

“This was never just about taking the tents down. This was about taking care of the open air drug market,” said George Stergios, a member of a task force of community leaders from the South End, Roxbury, and Newmarket working on the issues there.

Andrew Brand, another member of the task force, said he drove by the Mass. and Cass area recently. “There were hundreds of people on the street. It didn’t look any much differently than it did last year, minus the tents.”

The concerns illustrated neighbors’ frustration and skepticism with city attempts to eliminate Mass. and Cass as the epicenter of the region’s drug epidemic. Many social service programs are based in the area, including two methadone clinics, two homeless shelters, an engagement center where people can congregate during the day, and two health care programs for the homeless, where the city’s only brick and mortar needle exchange program is located.

In January, the fledgling Wu administration broke down the tent encampments and moved people to transitional housing, what was called the first stage to getting people out of the tents and cold weather and into recovery. But neighborhood leaders worry that people will only return when warm weather arrives.

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Wu’s point person on Mass. and Cass, Monica Bharel, said clearing the tents was an urgent first step, because of public health concerns with cold and unsanitary conditions and for public safety, noting reports of the drug dealing and sex trafficking of women in the encampments.

More than 185 people have been relocated to safe housing, Bharel said.

“These are human beings who are extremely grateful for this fresh chance at a new start,” she said. “What we were doing before was not working. It wasn’t working for the community and it wasn’t working for individuals who were homeless, and especially those unsheltered.”

Bharel added that city officials are working on longer-term plans to keep people off the streets and transition them to housing, while addressing their underlying substance abuse addictions and mental illness.

But she stressed during Thursday’s community meetings that officials are working to address residents’ concerns about crime, pointing to the arrests of Familia and Boggs, as well as recent arrests for drug trafficking.

Police Lieutenant Peter Messina, head of the street outreach unit, said Boggs was “an absolute predator in the community, and he was taken off the street.”

The arrest was part of an operation run by Boston and State Police and the FBI to crack down on human trafficking in the area. Police said several men received court summonses to answer to related charges of offering to engage in sex for a fee.

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John Redding, a lawyer for Boggs, said during a brief court hearing Thursday that Boggs suffers from mental illness and that he does not have the mental capacity to carry out a crime such as sex trafficking. Redding noted that the undercover police officers were posing as prostitutes.

“This case is based solely on what police said a mentally disabled person said to them,” he said. Boggs, whose criminal history includes charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, was ordered held in lieu of $200 cash bail.

Familia, the other man charged, was ordered held in lieu of $60,000 bail after prosecutors described a case in which he allegedly kidnapped a woman who tried to buy drugs from him at Downtown Crossing and then held her captive for several months last year, raping her and forcing her to work as a prostitute in hotels and at Mass. and Cass. The woman was able to escape at one point, but in October told police that she ran into Familia again in the Mass. and Cass area, according to court records.

The woman told police that Familia came up to her and said, “I own you for the rest of your life and you can’t run away from me.”

John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.