From the outside, the City of Alexandria Community Shelter looks like any other somber municipal facility. A way station for people who temporarily need a place to stay, the gray stone-and-brick building shares a location on Mills Road with the city's substance-abuse detox center in a secluded industrial zone just off Duke Street, down the road from the city jail.

The inside is institutional. All fluorescent and disinfectant, its atmosphere is as spare as the change some of its residents beg for on street corners during the day. Adults and children mull around the noisy second-floor lobby without much to do after sunset, after dinner. Some retreat early to the dormitory or family units.

But for others, down a gray-green hall of closed doors from the main desk shines a light at the end of the tunnel. The glow from the monitors of four Atari SC1224 personal computers in a small neat room makes this something of an exception among the nation's homeless shelters.

Rondalynn Brown stares intently at the computer screen. Prompted by the program, she tries to type "Dad;" in the designated space, but misses the semicolon. "What'd I do?" she asks herself when the program prompts her to try again. She retypes the word with a comma. The computer encourages her to try again.

"I'm trying to learn keyboard skills," says Brown, 35. For her, Alexandria is hometown without a home. This is her seventh week at the shelter since her husband was killed. She is four months into a difficult pregnancy and has nowhere else to go. Her 15-year-old son stays with her parents. "Depending on how I feel each day, I might come in here," she says, motioning to the computers. The first time she sat down at one, she pressed a few keys and innocently cracked the program code. She's proud of that. "I like a challenge," she says. "I've been doing a re'sume'. I want to be either a cosmetologist or go into word processing."

Two computer stations away, James Callahan races through software called "Math Speed Games." His score is tallied in the upper-right corner of the screen after each answer.

In his third week at the shelter since emerging from detox next door, Callahan, 39, is practicing on the math programs. "One of my not-so-good subjects," he says, explaining that he once worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and also attended a school for computer technicians. That's the profession he'd like to get back to. He sees the shelter's computers as his link to the future.

The game ends. Callahan's final score appears. "Look," he says, a little disappointed, "I only got a 78 percent." Asked if he wants to run through "Math Games" again, he replies, "Yeah, but I want to eat first."

In what is called a "demonstration program," a coalition of grants, public and private, plugged in these four computer terminals at this shelter two months ago. Linked via modems to the same programs that are booted up daily at computers in the adult basic-GED center in the Alexandria school board's Minnie Howard Administration Building off King Street, and at job-assistance sites in Alexandria and Arlington, shelter residents can call up educational programs designed to teach basic skills and life skills, and progress to software focusing on finding and keeping jobs.

"A big push in living in the shelter is having employment," says Mat Pasquale, director of special projects for the Alexandria City public schools, a backer of the shelter program. Pasquale doesn't view putting computers into a homeless shelter as a solution to this tough societal problem. But he does think it might help make a difference in some disrupted lives. "It is not the end-all but it does give us another tool," he says. "The computers are an added incentive to do greater things."

He's witnessed educational computer programs work for other "at-risk" populations. The average client using the bank of computers at the Minnie Howard center, he says, is not that different from many at the shelter -- female, black, mid-twenties, a single parent, with a seventh-grade reading level and a fifth-grade math level, who dropped out of school and is unemployed or underemployed.

Between 200 and 300 people a year brush up on basic skills or earn general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) at that site, he says. "If we can get them to eighth- or ninth-grade level, then we can get them a job. The majority of them are placed in employment ... A lot of them, because of their past histories, will just drop through the cracks again. We're not 100 percent, but we think we're making a dent."

Among the 30 or so people at the homeless shelter who so far have taken to the computers is Annette Thompson, a mother of three who says she and her children (ages 17 months, 4 and 7) were evicted from their home last spring "because my husband was a drug addict who was blowing our money."

A former nursing assistant, Thompson, 24, says of shelter life, "I see it as a way to get from point A to point B." Determined to support her children herself, she wants to go back to school. She studies math and English on the computers at Minnie Howard during the day, and returns to the shelter at night and practices typing. She hopes to combine her nursing experience with clerical skills to land a job that will turn her life around.

"I started at zero words per minute and I'm up to 22," she says, keeping an eye on her children nearby. "At first I was petrified. I had never worked at a computer before ... But I was amazed to find out it was really simple."

The educational software used takes a kind approach to learning that accommodates fragile egos often found in homeless shelters. Developed by Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC), a division of Simon & Schuster, the computer courses are "set up to be very affirmative in their teaching style," says Dail Moore, director of Alexandria's Office of Employment Training, which purchased the modified hardware and educational programs from CCC. "Mistakes are handled gently. It automatically backs up if mistakes are continued to be made and gives the person a chance to try again."

More important, the programs connect people who are feeling unconnected to life outside the shelter. "The labor market is becoming a place where there is an increasing demand for skills in math and English and communications, and those basic skills are going to be more and more necessary to get a job and hold on to it," Moore says.

According to Claudia Mansfield, director of public relations at CCC's regional office in Alexandria, similar educational "courseware" is used at more than 3,000 sites nationwide, where it has proved useful in lowering high school drop-out rates and providing students with life-survival skills. "The programs provide basic skills and life skills -- how to write a check, how to do a job re'sume' -- a comprehensive program for individuals who are either at risk or individuals who have dropped out and want to get GEDs," says Mansfield.

But the skills learned aren't necessarily the critical benefit, she says. "One of the biggest problems for the homeless is low self-esteem. The comments you get from people using them is that the computer doesn't know if you're black or white, rich or poor. The computer doesn't give nasty looks. Instead, the program does give a lot of positive reinforcement ... They build their basic skills. They become more marketable. They feel more competent to go out into the job market and that increases self-esteem."

A woman stands in the doorway of the computer room and says she needs a typewriter.

"What for?" asks Fred Nevels.

"I need to type my 171 Form by tomorrow morning," she says, holding the federal job application.

"I'll find one for you," he promises. After teaching basic adult skills at the city jail during the day, Nevels comes to the homeless shelter to do more of the same and to convince residents that saddling up to a computer can change their luck. "My philosophy is that you can look at being homeless in two lights," says Nevels, whose upbeat approach often defies his surroundings. He is the heart of the shelter's education program, assisted by eight volunteers. "You can look at it as being down on your luck, or as an opportunity to take time out and reprioritize your life and make a fresh start."

Nevels, who has been teaching at the shelter since July, figures the grant that added four computers to his "classroom" was a bonus. He is delighted lately by the number of children, as young as 6 years old, who show less reluctance than their parents to try out the computers. Residents who show an interest are assessed. Those without a high school diploma start with the GED-preparation program that focuses on literacy and basic math. More advanced students polish existing skills and can work in occupation-specific programs. "In every way," says Nevels, "the computers have made a big difference in practice and study habits here."

But Yvonne Rafferty fears that "service" projects for the homeless, such as placing computers in shelters, may be feeding a public misconception about them. "Homeless people are homeless, first of all, because they don't have permanent and affordable housing," says the New York social psychologist who testified Tuesday before the House Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations Committee on the devastating effects of homelessness on families.

There on behalf of the American Psychological Association and Advocates for Children, Rafferty is concerned that efforts to change homeless people rather than to change their circumstances are misdirected. "Somewhere along the way, people started thinking about building up the person," she says. "Like if we teach them the skills, they won't be homeless. Homelessness is just part of poverty."

As for the psychological benefits, Rafferty says, "Homeless families have had a whole series of disappointments. And they do feel hopeless and demoralized. So to the extent that they do get some skills, it will increase their self-esteem. But self-esteem doesn't pay the rent."

Nevels isn't so sure it's that simple. "We like to have quick fixes and neat definitions of these problems," he says, watching Rondalynn Brown challenge a math program. "Regardless of any public misconception, an individual who is homeless or incarcerated has got to get back into the mainstream. Homeless people still have to become viable in terms of competing for a job ... Being homeless is really an opportunity to define how you want your life to go from this day forward."