Did you read that evocative column yesterday by my colleague Courtland Milloy, who reported on the half-dozen down-and-outers gathered around a fire in an old oil drum near a street corner in central Washington? They were merely trying to keep warm on a day when the mercury had dipped below zero in early morning.

It's lucky that Milloy encountered them in daytime, because if it had been dark, these luckless and penniless fellows might have been subject to arrest and a fine "not exceeding $10 for each and every offense" -- if any of them could have found $10. The law, as codified, has been on the books since 1892. Here is what it says:

"It shall not be lawful . . . within the District of Columbia to kindle or set on fire, or be present, aiding, consenting or causing to be done, in any street, avenue, road or highway, alley, open ground, or lot, any box, barrel, straw, shavings or other combustible between the setting and rising of the sun. . . . "

In other words, if you're out on the streets, it's legal to take steps to keep from freezing to death during the day, but not at night.

A postscript: Milloy drove past the site of the warming-up group yesterday, and found that somebody had donated a huge pile of firewood.