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After spate of Mass. and Cass stabbings, authorities clear Atkinson Street, close engagement center

Only a few parked cars and police vehicles remained on Atkinson Street Thursday afternoon.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A rash of brazen, daytime stabbings in the Mass. and Cass area prompted Boston authorities to clear Atkinson Street of people this week and temporarily shut down an engagement center that offers services to the chronically homeless and those struggling with addiction there.

According to police reports, at least five stabbings were reported in the area between late Sunday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon. The blocks around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard are the epicenter of the city and region’s opioid and homelessness epidemics, and the closure of Atkinson Street is the latest development in the saga of the open-air illicit drug market that operates there.

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For months if not years, Atkinson Street has been the heart of Mass. and Cass. Even months after the city cleared the area of homeless encampments, scores of people still gathered daily on the sidewalks of Atkinson to seek, sell, and use hard drugs.

But on Thursday, Atkinson Street’s sidewalks were empty. A single police car sat idling with its blue lights flashing in the middle of the street. Fencing closed off the entrance to the center. Above the entrance, a message read: “All are welcome.”

The milieu typically seen on Atkinson Street appeared to move one street over, to Bradston Street, where dozens injected drugs into their veins and nodded off Thursday afternoon.

“They push us from one block to the next, like that’s going to (expletive) change anything,” said one man who identified himself only as David, who has been homeless for a decade and last got out of jail in March.

Closing the center, even temporarily, puts up a barrier to accessing resources, he said.

“For me, it’s one bad thing after the other,” said David as he tinkered with a bicycle on the side of Bradston Street. “I’m one bad decision away from death.”

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The engagement center building, which opened in December, provides a daytime drop-in space for those struggling with addiction and homelessness, offering food, shelter, clothing, treatment resources and access to medical care, according to city authorities. Recovery specialists are there to help those who need it, officials said.

A spokesman for Mayor Michelle Wu’s office said Thursday that public safety concerns necessitated that Atkinson and the engagement center be shut down “for a few days.”

“Outreach teams will continue to work in the area to provide services to those that need them,” said the spokesman in a statement. “We will continue to offer transportation to daytime service centers in Boston.”

After the city cleared the area of tents in January, officials referred scores of people to housing and treatment services. But some advocates contend more needs to be done to help those in need in the area.

Jim Stewart, a founding and steering committee member of SIFMA Now!, a group that advocates for sites for safe consumption of drugs in the state, said in a statement that “Depriving people of service that they need in response to the actions of a few (in such a broad, indiscriminate way) is what armies of occupation do.

“It’s not a public health or community policing response,” he said. “Every other time they’ve done this, it just disrupts everything, support systems, harm reduction between clients, puts people at risk in the surrounding communities.”

The first stabbing in the most recent spate of street violence in the area occurred shortly after 5:20 p.m. Sunday on Southampton Street. The victim, who was stabbed in the leg, told police the dispute that motivated the stabbing was over $30, according to a police report.

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The following day, there were at least two stabbings either in or around the engagement center, according to police reports. In one of the incidents, a witness told police a suspect, later identified as John Hammersly, walked out of the engagement center with a knife. He was arrested and charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and possession of fentanyl.

According to a police report, there was another stabbing that afternoon at the engagement center, but no further information was available.

The next day, Tuesday, brought more bloodshed to the area. Just before 9 a.m., police found a shirtless man stabbed, covered in blood and staring at an abdomen wound in what officers described as shock. Police followed a trail of blood down Topeka Street and a block down Southampton Street.

That same morning, at about 9:40, police responded to a report of a stabbing on Massachusetts Avenue. A friend of the victim walked into Victoria’s Diner and asked the staff to call police. Staff told investigators the stabbing occurred on the platform of the Newmarket train station.

On Thursday, the closures of Atkinson Street and the engagement center were met with a mix of apathy, acceptance, and outrage from those who call the streets of Mass. and Cass home.

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A homeless man, Sohayb Dougad, said he would favor the city clearing all the Mass. and Cass streets of homeless people and advocated for across-the-board drug legalization. He said he struggles with a crack cocaine addiction. While he spoke, mere feet away, a friend flicked a syringe filled with a brownish liquid before plunging it into his lower arm.

“People have no respect,” Dougad said of the recent violence. “That’s why it’s shut down, it’s closed.”

Another man who gave only a street sobriquet of K-Ruler said that for city leaders, it boils down to a simple question when it comes to Mass. and Cass.

“What are you going to do with the people?” he asked.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.