- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In her annual State of the District address, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Tuesday said residents shouldn’t be deterred by critics of her plan to close the homeless shelter at D.C. General Hospital and end homelessness in the city, saying opponents are speaking from a “place of fear.”

“People have said vicious things. They clouded the mission, and they have threatened those trying to carry it out,” said Ms. Bowser. “Because, sadly, sometimes people fight from a place of fear. And, sadly, sometimes leaders retreat to that place too.”

Speaking at the Arena Stage in Southwest, the Democratic mayor defended the $22 million-a-year plan, which would establish smaller homeless shelters in seven of the District’s eight wards. She said those who have spoken out against the costs of the program are making false comparisons.

“I urge us not to be distracted by arguments based on fear or convenience or apples-and-oranges comparisons that falsely represent the cost of lifting families out of homelessness,” she said. If we fail to act — or if we do not move forward with one of the sites — we will not be able to close D.C. General. Not now, not any time soon, and maybe never.”

Ms. Bowser touched on a variety of topics as she touted her administration’s successes in meeting challenges in her hourlong speech before scores of residents and officials. But the homeless issue — and her defense of her plan — accounted for a significant part of her address.

Residents around the District have sharply criticized the plan, saying they had no say in selecting the shelter locations and have not been told why those sites were chosen instead of others. The vast majority of residents at a D.C. Council hearing last week said they support closing D.C. General and setting up smaller shelters around the city, but they wanted to have been part of the process.

Ms. Bowser noted that homelessness already is declining in the District. In 2015 the city helped 1,000 families exit homelessness, which is 33 percent more than 2014, she said. The District also helped nearly 1,500 individuals, including 760 veterans, find a permanent home.

Turning to the topic of public safety, the mayor said that more needs to be done to stop violent crimes.

“Like many big cities, we had some challenges this past year. Too many homicides and too many robberies,” she said. “I want to be very clear about something: I believe the best way to fight crime is to give people a fighting chance.”

Ms. Bowser said programs like the LEAP Academy and the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program will give young residents a chance to get on the right path from the start.

Enhanced job training and mental health services, which were staples of council member Kenyan McDuffie’s recently approved omnibus anti-crime bill, also will be a big part of bringing down the crime rate, she said.

“Addressing those root causes of crime is our starting point,” said Ms. Bowser, whose own anti-crime legislation was replaced by Mr. McDuffie’s.

So far crime has been on the decline this year, compared to the same period in 2015. Currently the District has had 23 homicides — an 8 percent decline from last year. If the trend holds, the District is on track to record about 105 homicides in 2016.

Last year the city had 162 homicides — a 54 percent increase over 2014. The number of murders fell from 192 in 2007 to 88 in 2012. But the homicide rate began climbing in 2013, when 104 murders were committed.

Meanwhile, Ms. Bowser said her administration’s programs will bring thousands of jobs to District.

“Right now, when you look across the District, we have projects in all eight wards that will lead to 32,000 new jobs. While some may see cranes in the air, I see 32,000 pathways to the middle class in the near future,” she said.

According to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, the District’s unemployment rate for working-age residents dropped from 7.9 percent in fiscal 2014 to 6.7 percent in fiscal 2015.

Though Ms. Bowser didn’t directly address the District’s finances, she said her latest budget will make major investments in education, including a $75 million increase over last year’s numbers.

“In order to do all the other things we want to do as a city, we have to get education right,” she said. “That means more funding for instruction, and focused programming in both our traditional public schools and our public charter schools.”

A late-January report from Mr. DeWitt says the District’s “financial position and economic condition remained strong” during fiscal 2015, which ran from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30.

The General Fund balance increased from $1.87 billion at the end of fiscal 2014 to $2.17 billion at the end of fiscal 2015 under Ms. Bowser’s watch.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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