For weeks, word had been spreading through Beltsville about a house on Howard Street and what the new occupants were doing there.

These new people were running a half-way house for drug addicts and alcoholics, neighbors said.

So they called the Prince George's County licenses and permits department. They called the landlord. They called their County Council representative. They said their new neighbors were breaking the law, but the new neighbors said they were not.

Gary Haney's controversial group household was the subject of an emotional public debate last week at a community meeting sponsored by the Beltsville Civic Association in the Beltsville Elementary school library.

Opponents and residents of the purported halfway house filed into the school library to air their differences, city residents voiced their objections to the idea of former drug addicts and alcoholics living in a respectable suburban neighborhood.

Nelson N. Williams, a Fort Washington lawyer who represents Haney, stood peering into the flourescent arena. He said he understood why the community was upset.

"Of course we all don't want undesirable elements living with us," he said. "But in calling someone undesirable, we're putting ourselves above them in saying that we are somehow more desirable." Without trying to understand the residents of the group house, he said, the community was "trying to drive them out with devices like zoning codes."

Lorraine Kenyon, president of the citizens association, introduced Haney, the man who had invited former addicts and alcoholics to live with him at 4800 Howard Rd.

"What is in my residence is a group of people living in a drug- and alcohol-free environment," Haney said. "We joined together to live in a home where we could be proud of what we've accomplished, and not ashamed."

Haney explained that he is a former drug maker--of PCP--and heroin addict. After he conquered his addiction, he decided to devote himself to helping other addicts, he said, and he now runs a drug-abuse prevention course in Fairfax County, Va. He said he decided to live in Beltsville after he visited the community for a speaking engagement.

Haney said when he first started a group home in March, he offered counseling, but neighbors complained and authorities called to tell him that he needed a special license to run a counseling service in Beltsville. So, he said, he stopped formal counseling earlier this month.

Now, he told the meeting, his house is simply a home where eight people offer one another mutual support in trying to get jobs, make adjustments and reestablish themselves.

"We're not trying to cause any problem," he said, "but the fact that we've been drug addicts and alcoholics scares a lot of people.

"Together, we try to do something positive and productive with our lives," he said. "We are told to please do it--but please do it somewhere else."

Virginia Arnold rose to speak from a table near the front. She gave Haney a sidelong glance and began to read from notes written on index cards:

"We as residents of Beltsville are in favor of drug and alcohol programs. We really have nothing against what Mr. Haney has tried to do," she began. "It's our contention, however, that this house was, and still remains, a public nuisance."

She said a woman who was found passed out on a Hyattsville street had asked police to take her to Haney's house. A neighborhood youth who Arnold said was a known drug user was seen at the house. He had been turned away, she said, but he had come to the house nonetheless.

Of Haney's housemates, she said, "We are acknowledging the fact that they did not participate in (incidents of intoxication). But the fact that they are known as a counseling source has drawn people there."

Although Haney said he no longer offers counseling at the house, Arnold complained that he is still operating a telephone "hotline" and continues to take in drug users--charges that Haney and his cotenants denied emphatically.

County Council member Frank Casula said he has been besieged with phone calls about Haney's house.

"Now, the neighbors don't believe in what he's trying to do," Casula said. "That's not what I'm saying, that's what my constituents are saying."

Casula told Haney that before he established the group household, he should have applied for county licenses, checked the laws and consulted with the neighbors.

"You failed to tell 'em straight--that's what they're upset about."

Haney replied that he had sought a permit in March to establish a group home, but could not get clear directions from county agencies.

He said he invited all his neighbors in to see the home, but no one came. He said when he conducted a meeting about drug abuse in the community, at Beltsville Baptist Church last year, few people showed up.

Charles C. Deegan, the county's acting director of licenses and permits, told the audience that Haney applied for a group home permit April 20. Before it can be granted, Deegan said, the house must pass fire safety, building and housing code inspections. He explained later that Haney legally may have as many as eight persons living in his home, provided he gets an exemption from county parking-space requirements.

As the officials spoke, the meeting became disorderly. Irate protesters shouted questions and Haney's supporters answered.

"My little daughter was introduced to drugs right here in little old Beltsville," said Mary Jane Hanover, the mother of a 22-year-old member of Haney's group.

Hanover told the audience that her daughter has gotten away from drugs and now is holding a job. "I don't care what the hell (Haney is) doing in that house," she said. "Whatever he's doing is working for my daughter."