LUTHER Place Memorial Church, on Thomas Circle - five blocks from the White House, one and a half blocks from The Washington Post - is in the center of what police have begun to call an "epidemic" of prostitution. Pastor John Steinbruck estimates that in the last two years 25 women have been murdered within sight of the church steps. He refers to a nearby apartment building as a "high rise brothel." He as seen women "flying" from the second floor windows of houses across N Street in back of the church. His wife, from the church's free food and clothing center, watched a 15-year-old girl beaten unconscious by her pimp.

An athletic 48-year-old jogger and motorcyclists, Steinbruck has been trying to build friendships with the young prostitutes themselves. He's succeeded with only two, both under 18. During his mother's funeral last Christmas, he says proudly, these two kept the rest from soliciting the mourners.

Apart from the occasional use of the church's ladies' room, that remains the only real sign of contact between the church and the strange community which surrounds it. "The only time I was ever noticed personally by the other girls out there," he remembers, "is when I stopped in my van once and one of them thought I was stopping for her. She didn't see who I was and came running over. The rest of the time, they're like stone faces. I see them I don't know how many times; they look right through me. Why are they so hostile?"

Steinbruck has offered the church as a sanctuary for prostitutes who feel their lives are in danger. None have come. The church operates a free medical clinic, the food and clothing center, a pretrial house and the D.C. hotline from six semi-renovated slum dwellings on N Street. Few prostitutes have taken advantage of them. Occassionally he hears sound trucks on 14th Street and around Thomas Circle, calling on the prostitutes to "repent."

"I'm under no illusions," he says. "I haven't been much more help than the sound trucks. Many times, the only solution for them is their destruction."

Washington, along with the rest of the country, is doing a lot of soul searching about prostitution this year - juvenile prostitution in particular.Two grand juries are investigating the exploitation of teenagers by pimps. The D.C. police department (which apprehended 104 teen-age prostitutes in Washington in 1977, and 112 by October of this year) has applied for $344,000 of federal money to pay for a series of work sessions on juvenile prostitution that would bring together judges, police officers, prosecutors, social workers, educators, psychiatrists and youth representives from more than 20 cities around the country. A nonprofit youth-oriented organization based in Arlington (the National Office for Social Responsibility) has just launched a $407,000 program to provide a national network of shelters for runaways driven into prostitution, a clearing house of information for police, judges, social workers and families, and "media drive."

The National Office for Social Responsibility approached Steinbruck about hosting the pilot shelter out of Luther Place Memorial Church. He had reservations. "It's an iffy thing," he said. "Prostitution is not likely alcoholism, drug abuse, hunger. Prostitutes have no reason to seek you out, there is no question about them coming in. You are going to have to actively go out and seek them."

However, NOSR said it would help him apply for a $35,000 grant, train the staff, initiate a referral system, set up free services, document progress, and communicate the experience to other cities around the country. Its director took Steinbruck to cocktail parties at the homes of wealthy patrons in Potomac.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained is what Steinbruck eventually decided.

"When I got off the bus from Philadelphia, my feet hadn't even hit the ground before these two girls approached me. They said they knew a place where lots of kids from out of town crashed until they could find work . . . We took a taxi. Then we got to this big shinny car parked near the river and there was another black girl in the car. She looked very friendly. So I hopped in and said, 'Hi.' She grabbed me and shoved something under my nose. The last thing I saw was a black dude who was also in the car handing all this money to the two girls . . . I woke up tied down to a bed; a bunch of blacks were standing over me and one of them said, 'Honey, we're going to get you into good shape.' . . . they did a train on me [gang rape]. I passed out from exhaustion, woke up and passed out again. They kept it up all night . . . later there were other men there. I started crying and screaming. Somebody took my arm and worked on it until he got a vein to pop up. They shot me up with scag for a week. After that, nothing seemed real.I was hooked. Then they took me out on the street. At 13, I was a mainlining hooker, working for the street pimps."

That's what happened to Frances L., according to testimony before the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee in 1972.It is the quintessential horror story, and variations of it now find their way onto television networks, into magazines like Time, Newsweek, Family Circle, even Hustler. They are being incorporated as case studies into research reports and grant applications. They are quoted by politicans, social workers and police.

Something must be done. Frances L. must be rehabilitated.

"I'm rehabiliated all right . . . When I was in prison, I lost my daughter, I lost my freedom, and I lost a lot of self-respect. But I didn't lose my looks.I've still got my body, and I still know how to use it. Ane when Christmas Eve comes, you can be sure some guy will be paying for a piece of it." (From an interview with an unnamed woman prisoner in Washington.)

Certain progressive elements in the juvenile justice system are beginning to feel that the less contact a child has with any part of that system, the better.

Betsy Reveal, executive director of Washington's Office of Criminal Justice Plans and Analysis, is one: "We don't know the extent of the juvenile prostitution problem now anymore than we did three years ago, when nobody was very concerned with it. We're pretty sure there's more of it, but how much more we don't know. What's happening is that people are beginning to become concerned nowdays about things that were sort of taboo before, like incest and child abuse. And when you start talking about something as sensational as juvenile prostitution, everybody jumps in. It's incredibly inflammatory, and what bothers me is that the whole thing could backfire so easily. People start leaping in with solutions before they understand the question. Programs are created that are more of a threat than a benefit."

John Rector, administrator of the office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice, is another: "One of my big concerns is the tendency of enforcement and correctional people to get too child-specific . . . too focused on the child, instead of asking about the conditions that make these children want to sell themselves. What about the entrepreneurs? What about the customers? This is a convention city, you know. What about the need for money? In an area like juvenile prostitution you have people making very strong moral judgments, and the kids get locked up. Often the first experience a young person has with the law is a disaster."#TA warm fall Tuesday morning. Outside the Luther Place Memorial Church, the regular group of streetwalkers sit on a low wall along N Street. They take a lazy turn around the church to Thomas Circle, loosening up like athletes. Too early for action. Inside the church, 25 concerned citizens are discussing plans for the new shelter.

The man with the slightly dishevelled Prince Valiant hairdo is Robert J. Gemignani, president of the National Office for Social Responsibility (NOSR) and former Nixon appointee in the juvenile department of HEW. He has invited people from the police department's juvenile prostitution unit, a professional modeling school, the Department of Transportation, Preterm Abortion Clinic, a private dentist's office, a runaway house, the District's "roving leader" program for street children, and the YWCA.

To interrupt the typical Francis L. progression from bus station to pimp and finally to the street, he explains the Department of Transportation is drawing up a profile of a typical runaway that will be distributed to station employes. Children who fit the profile will be referred to the shelter before the pimps get them. There will be three or four "outreach workers" from the shelter circulating through the stations and the streets, on the lookout for kids. Once in the shelter, children will have free medical care from volunteer physicians and dentists, friendship and counseling from staffers, food. They will be taken to actors groups, photography and modeling studios and the like "to get an idea of possible alternatives." NOSR has hired a local ad agency to start a nation-wide media campaign (featuring a picture of a model dressed in prostitute's clothes under the headline: "AT AN AGE WHEN MOST GIRLS ARE JUST LEARNING ABOUT SEX, JESSICA IS SELLING IT.") calling for "tax deductible" contributions. He is working with United Way, and legislators or the Hill. NOSR is also involved in the police department's grant applicatioon for a national juvenile prostitution symposium.

There are questions asked, Points made.

Detective Gerald W. Robertson, of the police juvenile prostitution unit, says that the Frances L. progression does not seem to apply broadly in Washington most out-of-town teenaged prostitutes are "in the life" before they get here. "All I can say is I hope your people are very aware of the enormous differences between your average Georgetown street runaway and a working hooker."

"I agree it's hard to help kids who have been on the street for a while and are well-programmed by the pimps," Gemignani says. "But there are thousands of kids out there who are subject to getting caught up in the cycle. If we reach those kids early enough, we might be able to save them." (He explains later that the shelter would be for "kids surviving off the street," including runaways, "throwaways," local residents, as well as prostitutes.)

Robertson's partner, Joseph J. LeDoux, does not think juvenile prostitutes should be kept in the same shelter with non-streetwalking runaways because "one bed apple can spoil the whole barrel."

Carver Leach, of the city's roving leader program, wonders why a juvenile prostitute would take the chance of getting beaten by her pimp in order to come into the shelter. He said pimps would also tend to hang around the shelter to recruit new girls.

Dodie Butler, of SAJA Runaway House, point out that there are already six facilities in or near the city aimed at runaways. She suggests that Gemignani's money might better be spent on improving them.

The Department of Transportation people indicate there could be civil liberties problems involved in trying to intercept juveniles at the bus and train stations.

Capt. George Henry, assistant commander of the police youth division, says it is ilegal for police to refer juveniles to shelters.

As the meeting adjourns from the church in bright noonday sunlight, the band of regulars on the low N Street wall is still talking and laughing. Neither group pays any outward attention to the other.

A few nights later detectives Robertson and LeDoux are tailing an 18-year-old prostitute known as Jayne, from California. Since her brithday a few months earlier, she has passed out of their jurisdiction, and known it. Now she's an adult. Her blonde hair falling past her shoulders, fresh new Faberge lipstick shining on her mouth, she blows a kiss toward their unmarked police car as she enters a cab with a middle-aged man in a business suit.

Robertson laughs.

He is 29, with longish blond hair, sideburns, a thin mustache, heavy eyelids, a comic twist to his mouth, and has been described (in the Christian Science Monitor) as having "a worldweary Robert Mitchum look."

Robertson is a wonderfully creative policeman, in the technical sense. A Vietnam veteran who left the Marine Corps when they refused to send him back for a second tour, he fmmly maintains he is not a social worker. He was in the missing persons unit two years ago, when his sharp eyes picked up a discrepancy in the juvenile arrest totals. They no longer seemed to reflect what he saw as a growing street population. To prove his point, he and two other investigators arrested in 90 days twice the number of juvenile prostitutes arrested the entire provious year. It was a policeman's dream. He was put in charge of a new juvenile prostitutes unit, which in 1976 was unique in the country, in spite of the fact, as one researcher points out. "No evidence existed to indicate that teenage prostitution had increased that dramatically in a year - presumably intensified police apprehension efforts accounts for some or all of the increase."

It was also Robertson's idea to convene the national juvenile prostitution seminars, tentatively scheduled for next spring. He is technically fascinated with the idea of national cooperation between the different units around the juvenile prostitution problem. Among other things, he proposes to examine "preparation of a national register (under nonlaw enforcement auspices) to provide information about youth involved, for access by treatment professional and others with a legitimate need to know."

The end result of the seminars, according to Robertson's grant application, will be "not only improved cooperation among and between local jurisdictions, but also specific preventions and treatment programs needed and additional research required."

"Shall we follow Jayne?" LeDoux asks, then answers himself. "Might as well." They have already been two times around "The Track" - the triangle formed by 14th Street, K Street, Vermont Avenue, and L Street - and recognized every girl out. Impossible to prove any are juveniles.

Jayne's cab goes east on L and turns north on 14th. Every once in a while she turns and looks back at them. She sees the 38-year-old LeDoux at the wheel, blockly, deadpan and businesslike in a simulated leather jacket, Robertson beside him, and a reporter taking notes in the back seat.

"She'll be getting out soon," Robertson says. "She'll just walk away from it and start all over again."

The cab rounds Thomas Circle and cuts right on M Street. The john never looks back. Left on 15th, then a U-turn in front of the Madison Hotel with the detectives 10 feet behind. "She knows she's not going to be able to go in," LeDoux says.At some of the other hotels, where security is more lax, they might have chanced it. But as the doorman approaches their cab to let them out, Jayne checks behind, then tells the cabbie to drive on.

Robertson laughs again, pressing his eyes gently with his fingertips to ease a headache. The caravan proceeds up 15th Street and turns left on Rhode Island just as police radio orders them back to headquarters.

"Looks like she's going to get her trick after all," LeDoux says.He turns off and explains what they would have done without the interruption asked for IDs and tried to "embarrass" the john. There is no law against a man and a woman taking a cab to a hotel, no more than there is a law against following that cab, that man and that woman right up to their room, if necessary. And then standing outside that room singing "America the Beautiful" (in low voices so as not to "create a disturbance"). In the unlikely event you wanted to go that far.

The call to headquarters is so another ride-along can join the party, a fortyish volunteer social worker from Arlington, who'd been to the Luther Place Memorial Church meeting and heard the detectives talk about their work and their problems. One problem because interstate information on juvenile is scanty or nonexistent and fake papers are easy to arrange, it sometimes takes months to identify a streetwalker as a juvenile. Another problem: police estimate 50 percent of the juvenile streetwalkers are from out of town. When they are finally identified and picked up, they are returned out of the Washington jurisdiction where their case cannot be followed up. Many times, they're back on the streets in days.

"Say we send a kid back to Minneapolis," Robertson explains to her. "Well, her pimp might swing back through there a few weeks later. She's down on Pimp Beach, getting a suntan. Pimp says, 'Hey, baby, that was a bed scene back there in D.C. Man's too heavy back there. Tell you what. This time we're going to try L.A.' Actually," Robertson reconsiders, "It's pretty heavy in L.A. too. So they might go to Miami. Or New York, where they can really disappear. See, everything is fluid. The pimps and their women move around, they don't stand still for you. Out of say, 200, 300 pimps in the District during July and August, only 20 or 30 are local yokels. The rest are traveling through. Or maybe they don't even bother to come through. They send their bottom lady with a few of the girls and she sets up the operation. Now how do you get the pimp. You might pick up the girl, maybe if you're lucky she tells you about the bottom lady. So the bottom lady hires a slick lawyers and you never even come close to the pimp." "That's terrible," the woman says.

Michael S. Lieber is a 33-year-old defense lawyer who specialized in prostitute cases from his office at 501 D Street NW across from District superior court. The office is like an extension of 14th Street, full of tall, strong black men in hats and leather jackets, white women with dyed hair, leotard tops and very tight bluejeans, asleep on couches. Lieber, a bull walrus mustache, pink corduroy suit, ebullient Richard Dreyfuss movements, repeats what is obviously a standard line:

"Aw, come on, baby. I'm trying to help you. Don't give me this runaround."

Everybody smiles. They all love it.

"How did I get into this?" His teeth appear under the mustache. "I don't know. My personality is compatible with these people. They trust me. Besides, somebody's got to do it. If you ask me, the crimes they commit are a hell of a lot more amusing and genteel than most."

You hear from an assistant about a recent juvenile case:

"There were these two chili pimps, see, real low rent . . . you couldn't even call them pimps, really. They decide they're going to get a little bread, right? They go down to Roanoke, grab these two chicks, 14, 15, right off of some goddamn farm. I mean, they were country. White socks. The works. Hayseed in their underpants. It was awful. Terrible, really. So they bring these girls up here and put them on the streetGuess what. Those girls were picked up in a half-hour. The government, you know, all this grand jury stuff, was really out to nail those chilis. I mean, they wer e going to make a case out of it. They bring those girls back up from Roanoke, they got all their ducks in line. Then, you know what happens? One of those girls calls the defendants. Says she's sorry she got him in so much hot water . . ."

Lieber's a character, all right. He won't say how he broght out in court that the girls made the call, but he got a mistrial out of it.

Jayne is back on Vermont Avenue, between L and K, by the time Robertson, LeDoux, the volunteer social worker and the reporter return from Youth Division Headquarters. They leave the unmarked police car and begin strolling "The Track" in a counter-clockwise direction - against the current of prostitutes, but with the current of potential johns, rubberneckers, scooter police, paddy-wagons, footpatrolmen, two joggers and one cadaverous photographer who hops out of a limousine to shoot a cover for a "Canadian magazine."

"Well, how was it, Jayne?" Robertson says. "Was it a good one?"

They watch each other levelly, calmly, understandingly, almost with friendship. Jayne takes a final drag from her cigarette, flips it on the sidewalk, and begins to walk away.

"Hey." LeDoux's Louisiana voice is soft.

Jayne stops and turns. LeDoux motions ever so slightly to the cigarette on the sidewalk.

"Oh."

She smiles, picks it up, puts it in the nearest trash container, and goes on about her business.

Is there anyone in Washington now, the Juvenile Prostitution Unit is asked, who is really in touch with the Juvenile Prostitution problem . . . who really understands it . . . besides the police and those actually "in the lifestyle"?

Not really.

What about, say, the National Organization for Social Responsibility (NOSR), which is organizing the pilot shelter at Luther Place Memorial Church?

"They heard about our proposal and contacted us," said a sergeant. "We gave them everything they know."

So, there's nobody in town at all?

Well . . . maybe Marty Beyer.

Ironically, Margaret Beyer, PhD. in clinical community psychology, turns out to be even more progressive in her thinking about juvenile justice than Betsy Reveal or John Rector. Although she was invited to the meeting as Luther Place Memorial Church, she did not have time to go.

She favors decriminalization of prostitution in general (as did D.C. Police chief Burtell M. Jefferson at one point, though he now declines comment) and wants to put juvenile "offenders" outside the justice system entirely.

In testimony before the New York State Assembly, Beyer presented conclusions drawn from eight years of counseling juveniles in crisis centers and correctional institutions: "Given the stresses of adolescent maturation, it is inappropriate to label as delinquent the comparative nonconformity of runaways and prostitutes." The "paternalistic," "destructive," "discriminatory" system should, "at most, be involved in rectifying the difficult social problems which contribute to acting out, instead of regulating morals or the independence of your people."

If the justice system wants to deal with somebody, let it deal with the parents, the pimps, and the johns.

Beyer, 29 in wheat jeans, sandals, black wire-rimmed glasses, short dark hair - sits on the extreme edge of a chair in the offices of the National Youth Alternatives Project, which works on developing youth services "which include youth participation in the design and provision."

She is the research director.

"A kid's going to laugh at you when you tell her to stop making good money on the street," she says.

Then, too, there's the fact of being "in the life," which centers around a relationship that can be as complex and powerful as conventional love and marriage: "It's amazing. You talk to these girls about their pimps and they will all give you a standard rap, delivered with great fervor, like someone who's had a religious conversion. It goes something like 'He's really good to me . . . He takes me out shopping for clothes every day, he's got a great car. My friends are all really impressed. I finally have a place to live, and I really enjoy the time we spend together when I'm not working.' When the pimp beats them and threatens them, it shows them that he cares. So the kid gets sort of enveloped. Being in the life draws a line around them that's hard to cross."

Programs? Solutions?

"You try to offer a better alternative. But I don't know what that is. I'm afraid I don't know the answer to your question."

The regulars were there on the N Street wall again, when Pastor John Steinbruck told his congregation that the new shelter would never work until "we understand that it is we who are responsible for 14th Street, that is is we who have been the real prostiiutes." Wihtout that understand, he explains, everything is "disembodied gospel" and no wonder the street people pay no attention.

IT hasn't been all that easy for Steinbruck to develop it himself. After all these years, he is still slightly shocked when a member of the congregation is solicited after a Sunday service.