You may find it hard to imagine the sight of a dentist's chair in any way spirit-stirring, but it can happen. What it depends on is the context. A clean little cubicle with the chair and all of that other chilling, metallic stuff -- nobody's hapless castoff equipment, mind you, all brand new and up-to-date -- installed in a residence for homeless people, can make you count well-cared-for teeth as blessings, and make you realize that yes, this is right, this is the way it ought to be.

The transformation of the shelter established and run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) is something to see -- the big building at 425 Second St. NW on the edge of the city's judicial district, for so many years a piteous eyesore, now looking presentable, pleasant. But its new, patterned skin of softly tinted tiles is only part of the story, and the lesser part.

Inside, where by necessity an assortment of society's left-outs were housed temporarily in conditions as philosophically distressing as they were physically disheartening, housed like so much trash, things have changed more fundamentally -- clean, warm-toned walls in place of dirty, institutional green ones; tiled bathrooms and showers that work; medical facilities (including two dental offices); great factory-size refrigerators.

On the other, smaller end of the spectrum of responses to homelessness there is the row house in a Northeast neighborhood, unhappily a familiar sight, its windows and doors boarded and bricked, its back yard a scene of hopeless abandonment, its interior rooms a record of sorry habitation. Artist Stewart White's evocative drawing shows what this relic could become -- a contribution to the neighborhood, a beckoning warm place, a hearth, a home.

This transformation, too, will happen. Within a year a group called Housing Opportunities for Women (HOW) expects 12 more or less desperate tenants and a resident manager to be living under its aegis in this house, each with her own bedroom, each having access to a kitchen, two bathrooms and a small gathering space fitted into every one of the building's three floors.

The difference in size alone between the two projects is, of course, enormous -- the downtown shelter, when finally done in a month or so, will provide 1,700 beds plus rooms for 45 live-in staff. Differences in scale are commensurate. The CCNV operation is institutional. Its gleaming new kitchen, the equivalent of an Army mess hall, will dispense meals, via elevators, to dining halls located in each of the facility's "village" complexes. Women at the HOW residence, by contrast, will cook their own meals.

But both places are vital links in an obviously incomplete chain of services for the very poor; both operate according to the long-recognized (though frequently violated) principle of closely connecting services (medical, psychological, social) with the basic necessity of shelter; and both illustrate the rapidly blurring distinction between emergency shelter and long-term or even permanent low-income housing.

HOW organizers fully recognize the possibility that some occupants (each paying a rent of about $150 per month) may need or desire to stay for a long time. But the HOW approach, theoretically at least, represents the penultimate link in the chain, a transitional living arrangement for "formerly homeless" women that encourages them to help each other to make the last, difficult steps to a self-sustaining existence in the open marketplace for housing and jobs.

The design for the renovation was contributed by a big, busy local architecture firm, the Weihe Partnership, in response to the nationwide "Search for Shelter" program inaugurated last summer by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in collaboration with the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp. and the American Institute of Architecture Students.

This program is at once a modest and farsighted attempt to bring together the energies and talents of architectural students, working professionals and a host of agencies and individuals grappling with the problem of the homeless. With an idealism chastened by the failure of so much large-scale public housing in the postwar period (and also by the obvious lack of money for housing in the Reagan era), the AIA program consciously abjured the big, predetermined solution, opting instead to respond "to people rather than abstract ideas," in the words of former AIA president Donald Hackl.

In Washington, as elsewhere, this process produced an outpouring of people and companies willing to spend their talents or to donate materials or services to the cause of improving the lot of homeless people. But only in Washington and two others of the 32 participating cities did the immediate response produce a design for a real building. It worked this way here mainly because a single firm committed itself to finding a doable project -- the HOW residence -- and then proceeded to do it.

After a session with the HOW people a group of Catholic University architecture students devised a number of alternative floor plans, which were refined, again in close collaboration with the client, by Marc Nathanson, an associate partner in the Weihe firm. "An architectural tour de force this isn't, and it shouldn't be," he observes. "It's a straightforward, livable, economic facility. In a way, though, you work harder for a client like this -- they just don't have the 'eye' that our commercial clients have. It's like working for God."

That, I suppose, is the main point. Professionals of all kinds have skills needed by the courageous and sometimes lonely bands of people who are devoting themselves to the keep of our less-fortunate fellows. The needs are not necessarily big ones. The office of the Calvary Baptist Emergency Women's Shelter, for instance, is a room where the director, a psychiatrist and a social worker often have to do their special jobs all together and all at once. The only requirement is a couple of partitions. Architect William Reed, who heads up his own small firm in Chevy Chase, was able to help draw up a plan. He promised to help make sure the construction is done correctly, too.

The problem of connecting good intentions with actual needs, however, remains critical. Although Laura Adkins of the Weihe Partnership has assembled an impressive list of both needs and potential donors, it is a job clearly beyond the capacities of a single person or company, a job that perhaps the mayor's new Coordinating Council on Homelessness could do, despite its unwieldy, 73-member size.

And, to stress the obvious, volunteerism -- corporate, religious or individual -- is in itself insufficient to the task, an inevitable fact of life often overlooked by rah-rah cutters of federal housing budgets for the past seven years. That's a macro policy that's had a clear negative impact, as, obviously, has a macro-macro economic policy tilting impressively in favor of the upper end of the social register.

Neither of these projects here discussed could possibly have been accomplished without public funds. The HOW residence will be renovated with a $266,000 40-year loan from the District government, a loan that basically is a gift. (The interest charge is zero percent, and should HOW occupy and operate the place for its intended purposes for a decade, repayments will cease.) The downtown shelter, you will recall, came about only after CCNV leader Mitch Snyder went on a hunger strike in 1984 until he got enough federal money to start rebuilding. The District government, at last recognizing a bargain, came through early this year with the $6.5 million needed to complete the $14.5 million project.

Even so, despite that money and all of the other heartening gifts, such as Pepco's contribution of $300,000 worth of electrical equipment or an individual's donation of $10,000 worth of medical equipment, the scope of the homeless problem forced cutbacks in the CCNV program. By far the most serious was the decision -- a necessity, Snyder says -- to convert most of the single-bed spaces to Army-style bunks, and thereby to increase capacity from 1,000 to 1,700.

That's like getting a 700-bed shelter for almost nothing, but it's a great, great loss in terms of privacy and dignity for the tenants. Such forced overcrowding is an effective strategy in an Army barracks, where the object is to create a cohesive, responsive unit in a tight command structure, but it's a counterproductive one in a place devoted, as it should be, to the care and feeding of the individual body and soul.

Still, one cannot help but be thankful for the combined efforts of all involved. The volunteer spirit is crucial -- that dentist's chair, for instance, will be manned by a professional who won't be getting paid for his or her time, and such efforts will be duplicated by those of hundreds of others in the coming year. And one can't help but be uplifted by the idea that for at least a dozen women in Northeast D.C., next Christmas will be certifiably happier than this one.