To contact HEWS, residents should call 387-7058, or go to the office at 1801 Ninth St. N.W.

For some time, Sarah Dunston, 31, had managed to support herself and her four children on $103 a week she earned as a cafeteria worker and $81 a month she received in public assistance.

But last summer Dunston was ill and could only work sporadically. She fell behind in her rent, and by September faced a $500 rent bill, a court summons and the threat of being put on the street by U.S. marshals.

"I had nowhere to turn," she said recently, as she sat in her one-bedroom apartment where one child sleeps on the couch, two others in a bed in the bedroom and the fourth in a second bed with Dunston. Her rent is $156 a month. "I was afraid to call the landlord because I thought he might say I had to move."

At D.C. Superior Court, she applied for emergency assistance under a city program designed to pay rent and utility bills for the poor in extraordinary situations. "They said they couldn't help me because they said I made too much money," Dunston recalled.

In desperation, she turned to the United Planning Organization, the city antipoverty agency.

Dunston said she has been able to remain in her Northwest apartment because of the help she got from a 3-month-old UPO program -- Housing Early Warning System (HEWS).

The program, originally targeted for the relatively poor area of upper 14th Street, is designed to keep "people where they are because there is no place for them to go," said John Holliday, founder of HEWS.

According to Holliday, evictions in the District are increasing at the same time the number of apartments available to poor people is decreasing.

"The government hasn't built on a large scale in about 10 years," he noted. In addition, he said, condominium conversions and renovaton of large homes from apartments to single-family houses is further eroding the rental market for the poor.

According to the D.C. Rental Accommodations Office, there were 2,500 evictions in 1977 and 2,600 evictions in 1978. Eight years ago, there were 188,500 rental units in the city; now there are 170,000.

In the case of Dunston, Holliday was able to negotiate with the landlord. Dunston said Holliday worked out a written repayment agreement with the landlord that allowed her to pay $25 a week toward her back rent plus regular rent payments.

According to the D.C. Rental Accommodations office, Dunston was among 110,000 tenants last year whose landlords filed a court suit against them for nonpayment of rent.

Many of them were mothers who had several children and were receiving public assistance; others held low-paying jobs like Dunston.

Most of them, noted Holliday, were afraid of their landlords, whom they have never seen and of a court system they did not understand.

Holliday said HEWS has no lawyers, but tries to negotiate settlements between tenants and landlords. The goal, he said, is not a court confrontation, but keeping tenants in their apartments.

In some cases, Holliday said, tenants purposely withhold rent to protest a landlord's refusal or delay to make needed repairs. Those tenants are told to obtain an inspection by city housing officials, who can then cite the owners for violations of the D.C. housing code, and to create with the court an escrow account for the rent owed.

One woman, who withheld rent, recently was evicted because she did not know the procedure, Holliday said.

"I was sympathetic with her reasons but she did it the wrong way," he said. She also called HEWS too late to get help, he added.

"She could have withheld her rent but there is a process," Holliday said. "She must get to the court to get their protection. Tenants are always the defendants, and the landlord should be the defendant. It only costs $6 to reverse that by filing suit in court against the landlord" for housing code violations, he said.

HEWS, which has helped about 75 tenants so far, is most effective if a tenant calls five days before a court appearance, Holliday said, because, "then we can look at their finances and try to work out a repayment schedule with the landlord.

"A woman called the other morning and said, 'I'm being evicted at 10,' and it was 9:30. We went up and the marshals were pulling up, too."

She was set out on the street.