Waiting for McKenna's Food Wagon to bring afternoon meals for street people, a young man wearing a red bandanna, open shirt and tattered jeans bummed cigarettes around Lafayette Park and tried his best to strike up friendly conversations with whoever would give him a light. He said his name was Skip and insisted that he was from another world.

He was released from St. Elizabeths Hospital only a few months ago as part of the city's court-ordered deinstitutionalization plan, but you had to wonder how long it would be before he was back in the hospital again.

Since his release, he was supposed to have been staying in group homes, or at least shelters for the homeless, but he said he couldn't remember where they were. So he slept on the streets, and like a homing pigeon, daily headed for the park around 4 p.m. for the second and last meal of the day.

By the time the food truck arrived, scores of other men and women had congregated for the free meals. And most of them, like Skip, seemed a stride or two away from reality. Some talked to themselves and others appeared locked in a Thorazine daze, saying nothing. One man changed his pants in the middle of the sidewalk, revealing no underwear. A woman conversed at length with a tree.

All of this was happening just across the street from the White House. But while no one would question this presidency's contribution to the further degradation of lives such as these, the credit for their immediate state goes directly to the District government.

The D.C. Mental Health Law Project reports that the District government is failing to provide adequate community-based health care for patients released from St. Elizabeths Hospital and as a result patients are often rehospitalized or dropped from the rolls of the city clinics.

The public interest group concluded that unless the patients require only minimal treatment, the city's mental health care system breaks down.

"Many formerly hospitalized people have simply fallen through an immense gap in the service system," group director Norman Rosenberg said in his annual report recently.

In many ways, Skip was an alien, speaking an unintelligible language, his eyes usually glazed. When passers-by refused to talk with him he simply placed a cigarette on the ground before him and talked and laughed with it.

It was eerie listening to Skip talk, alternately fading in and out of sanity. As he articulated complex astronomical concepts, speaking of "binary stars" and "light years," he gave the impression of having been a man of learning. Now, clearly, he was in pain. When his conversation turned serious, his face became a grimace and his head quivered as he massaged his chest.

Suddenly he'd go for another cigarette and start up a conversation wth "Mr. Nicotine."

Skip could not say what was wrong with him. Indeed, like many who suffer from mental illness it seemed he had constructed a fantasy world to which he could escape from whatever was bothering him but from which he now was unable to return.

Smiling and ever-pleasant, he attempted to introduce himself to anyone he saw smoking and seemed to be trying desperately to reintegrate himself into society. The main problem was that he was on his own, his only help coming from a volunteer-run food wagon, other outpatients and cigarettes, which never talked back--at least not in a manner that hurt his feelings.

Stephen M. Sonnenberg, director of the Washington School of Psychiatry, has suggested that the nation's mental patients are "objects of fear" because "when we look at those suffering from mental disorder we all see something of ourselves, something essentially human we would rather forget."

Jailing the mentally ill used to be justified with the saying "out of sight, out of mind." Now that saying, it seems, has been given an even crueler twist: out of mind, out of sight.