The police and news reports sounded alarms — pizza shop employee attacked — after a stabbing last week in the heart of the Boston area known as Mass. and Cass, the latest incident to illuminate roiling tension between business owners and the homeless people who frequent the neighborhood.
But like much of anything related to Mass. and Cass, the issue is far more complicated, according to the only known witness to the incident.
The witness, Mary Harris, a 26-year-old social worker who works with the formerly homeless man involved in the attack, said it was the pizza shop employee who delivered the first blow. In an interview with the Globe, Harris said the employee kicked her client as he was walking away from the shop, where the two had just had a dispute. In the ensuing fight, she said, her client was stabbed (he has since recovered).
In telling her story, Harris said, she was hoping to give voice to a community of people that are too often stigmatized and distrusted, even when they — by her account — are the victim.
“Let’s not be so quick to judge,” said Harris, a social worker for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, who has been spending the summer in the troubled part of the city surrounding the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard before she returns to medical school in the fall.
“At the end of the day, we need to remember, and keep in mind, our patients, members of the Mass. and Cass community, are part of a larger community as well, and their voices deserve to be heard just as loud and just as legitimized as everyone else’s voices in the story,” she said.
The incident, she said, was startling enough. But then, Harris said, she and her client were surprised to read reports the next day describing him as the attacker; news reports said he hit the pizza shop employee, the husband of the owner, in the head with a baton after throwing a soda can at the shop window. Other news reports falsely said the shop employee was the one who had been stabbed; the redacted police report makes it hard to follow which person was stabbed.
The Globe and other news outlets framed the story around the narrative of a pizza shop employee being attacked by a homeless man. Police records did not make that same conclusion. The police report from that day only includes the witness accounts, and does not make a finding. Authorities said the incident remains under investigation.
According to Harris, people immediately sided with the business owner and judged her client, a bias that has been influenced by concerns of persistent violence and drug dealing in the area.
Indeed, the owner of the shop where the incident occurred, New Market Pizza & Grill, has complained before about the public disorder around her property. Just months ago, dozens of people were sleeping around the corner in large tent encampments, which business owners said became havens for drug use, sex trafficking, and other crimes. After city officials broke down the encampments in January, public works crews erected a fence around the pizza shop and its parking lot to keep out vagrants.
Other business owners have raised similar concerns of harassment, saying the neighborhood has been overrun by an open-air drug market polluted with violence and vagrancy. And their complaints have been well-documented; in April, city officials closed an engagement center where people can congregate and seek services during the day after a series of stabbings in the area.
Police also have reported repeated incidents of high-level drug trafficking, and have arrested numerous people with guns.
New Market Pizza owner Janett Colombo, who identified her husband, Ramiro Colombo, as the victim in an interview last week, told the Globe at the time, “This is out of control.”
Here is what happened, said Harris, who has also provided her account to police. She had just finished a slice of pizza for lunch at the shop with a coworker when her long-term client walked in, a few minutes before a scheduled medical appointment at the nearby Roundhouse hotel, where a clinic has been set up.
Harris said her client, a man in his 40s, did not want to discuss the case and did not want to be identified because he did not want to attract further publicity. She has known him for about four years in her capacity as a caseworker. He had been homeless when they met, but he found housing a little more than a year ago. He was not under the influence of any substance, she is sure, and she has never known him to be violent.
“He’s just out there trying to survive, as a lot of our patients are,” she said.
At the pizza shop, she said, her coworker left but her client ordered french fries , and she waited with him. He went to use what he thought was a condiment bottle containing vinegar, but it turned out to be a bottle of cleaner.
From there, a “verbal escalation” ensued between her client and the shop employee after her client raised what he perceived to be a food code violation.
“I tried my best to de-escalate the situation, and at the end of the day it wasn’t worth it to wait around for a refund, or another order of fries,” Harris said. “I decided it was best that we just walk out and leave, which we did.”
She said the shop employee followed them, and then he kicked her client. A fight ensued. At one point, she said, the employee pulled out what looked like a Swiss Army knife from his pocket, and during a struggle he stabbed her client, she said.
That, she said, was when other shop workers ran out and restrained their colleague. She said the employee suffered a cut on his face during the struggle, but she is not sure how. Her client was not armed, she said.
“There was no metal pipe, no broken windows,” she said. “It all appeared in my mind to occur rather quickly.” At that point, police arrived.
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a police spokesman, would not comment on Harris’s account.
On Wednesday, Janett Colombo told a Globe reporter that she did not want to comment further on the incident, though she suggested Harris has a vested interest as the man’s social worker. A bottle of what looked like hand sanitizer was placed on the countertop with a handwritten note on it that read, “No Vinaigrette.”
Harris said she was simply wanted to give voice to a client — and a community —that too often — and too quickly — is judged.
It is the mission she set out upon when she attended College of the Holy Cross, where she worked at an HIV prevention clinic and at a women’s halfway house, she said. She continued that work when she arrived at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program four years ago, as head of an HIV screening team, before she began studies at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.
She said she doesn’t claim to have all the solutions, but suggested a bit of compassion, and less judgment, could be the start.
“Individuals in the Mass. and Cass area are just trying to survive, they’re dealing with a brutal disease that’s taken everything from them,” she said. “As a society, we should not be quick to make assumptions just because of someone’s social standing.”