Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Richard Hite lounged uneasily in a rumpled T-shirt and warm-up jacket, watching the crowd of derelicts and "street people" milling about in the National Visitor Center.

Nearby, Robert Mendelsohn, special assistant to Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, also watched, along with National Capital Parks Director Jack Fish.

Two men began cursing and swinging drunkenly at each other, falling to the floor. A volunteer worker from the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a radical Christian group assisting the street people, gently broke up the fight. Another man spilled a plate of warm potatoes and meat. Still another wandered outside and urinated against the building.

Hite turned away in dismay.

For nine days now, a handful of soft-spoken, austere CCNV activists has kept the hierarchy of the Interior Department tied in bureaucratic knots as it seeks ways to end what has become an unprecedented takeover of the National Visitor Center by a ragged band of homeless street people.

A little-known activist group, CCNV led dozens of the city's derelicts and street wanderers uninvited into a large section of the visitor center on Nov. 30, vowing to stay for the winter and use the largely empty building as an emergency night shelter from the cold.

Founded here in 1970, CCNV is one of the few remaining organizations from the Vietnam war era that still engages in confrontation politics and civil disobedience.

Fourteen CCNV members and supporters recently conducted a 42-day, liquid-only fast to protest the refusal of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Georgetown to divert a portion of its building improvement fund to assist the poor. Other CCNV members periodically stood up throughout church services in silent protest while others gave leaflets to parishioners.

CCNV has about 25 members who live in three lossely affiliated communal houses in the city. The group operates a soup kitchen, a free medical clinic and a residence for indigent criminal defendants awaiting trial.

All CCNV members work as unpaid volunteers and depend on private charity to operate their programs.

Ed Guinan, a former Paulist priest who is a founder of CCNV, estimates CCNV's annual budget at $60,000, including about $20,000 for medicine at the clinic alone.

Guinan also operates a commercial print shop called Collective Impressions that grosses $100,000 to $125,000 a year, he said. Net proceeds are now pumped back into the printshop to train indigents in printing skills, he said, but CCNV is considering using some of the proceeds in the future as an "economic base" for its other operations.

CCNV members represent a broad range of Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, from Guinan and Richard McSorley, a Jesuit professor of theology at Georgetown University, to Mitch Synder, a 35-year-old management consultant turned anarcho-Christian radical.

Members reach group decisions by Quaker-style consensus and say they are committed to helping the poor in the political spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

The recent visitor center takeover was engineered primarily by the 10 CCNV members, including Snyder, who lives in "Euclid House," at 1345 Euclid St. NW.

Their tactic put CCNV on an almost inevitable collision course with the government. The U.S. Interior Department, which has responsibility for the huge facility adjacent to Union Station, reluctantly permitted the street people to start sleeping there to avoid an embarrassing police confrontation. But the department is now under increasing pressure to oust the street people.

The crunch may come soon. "This is what we expect," Snyder said. "We don't want it, but we expect it."

The confrontation, Synder says, will serve its purpose -- to demonstrate in a dramatic way the "basic absurdity of a huge empty warm building being left unused while hundreds of homeless people in this city are forced to sleep on the street and face starvation and possible death this winter."

City welfare agency officials dismiss Snyder's words as high theater and say there are plenty of beds in city-run emergency shelters for anyone willing to use them.

Meanwhile, high level Interior officials have been meeting intensively among themselves and with city authorities to find a way to ease CCNV and the street people out of the visitor center without a confrontation.

Snyder says he will not leave until the city agrees to eliminate screening and registration requirements for street people staying at city-run shelters. The city has refused. CAPTION:

Picture 1, About 150 D.C. street prople lie on pallets at the National Visitor Center after eating a meal provided by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. Interior Department would like to end program. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, MITCH SNYDER... expects confrontation