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Boston Engagement Center temporarily closed after series of stabbings

People file into a tent being used as an "engagement center" outside the public shelter at 112 Southampton Street in Boston in May 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
People file into a tent being used as an "engagement center" outside the public shelter at 112 Southampton Street in Boston in May 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston's Engagement Center in the area of the city known as "Mass. and Cass" will close for five days because of a series of recent violent incidents there. Atkinson Street will be closed to traffic through Monday.

The Boston Public Health Commission opened the new Engagement Center in a building on Atkinson Street in December as a place where people could gather and get help with housing, addiction and mental health services. It had been operating under a large tent nearby.

"Right now, public safety necessitates that we shut down Atkinson Street, including the Engagement Center, for a few days," Mayor Michelle Wu's office said in a statement. "Outreach teams will continue to work in the area to provide services to those that need them. We will continue to offer transportation to daytime service centers in Boston."

Boston police said they had received reports of five stabbings near and inside the center since Sunday. One person has been charged with one of the stabbings. None of the injuries in the incidents are considered life-threatening. Police are increasing patrols in the area.

"Five stabbings in that short time period is a concern," said Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a spokesman for Boston police.

After the city cleared a large tent encampment from the area in January, workers referred people to the center to help find housing and other services. On average, city officials said, about 300 people visit the center each day.

Some area business leaders have reported increased violence and vandalism over the past two to three weeks, said Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association. She said the temporary closing of the Engagement Center is a "reset" that sends a message not to congregate on Atkinson Street, which she said has become more crowded with people who are either homeless or openly using drugs.

"I absolutely agree with the need to close [the Engagement Center]," Sullivan said. "There has to be a concerted effort to stop the open drug use and dealing there. My hope is that some of the elements causing the violence will dissipate and the city and the police can closely look at who returns."

But some activists said the city is punishing vulnerable people and depriving them of services because of the actions of a few.

"This is not a public health or community policing response," said Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge, which works with many of those who frequent the area."This just disrupts support systems, harm reduction between clients, and puts people at risk."

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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