Last night, sharp winds made temperatures in the low 20s feel even colder, and New York City police say officers took 41 persons to shelters and hospitals, a task many have found frustrating despite a policy that gives them the power to forcibly remove the homeless from city streets.

Making his rounds on the Bowery, police officer Peter Miller drew a long breath of frigid air and walked up to a man shuddering on a subway grating.

"It's pretty cold out here," he said to the man. "We can get you out of it."

"Never," the ragged man replied. "I have been a man all my life. I was on the front lines in Korea. I don't need your help."

With a little persuasion, however, Miller was able to get him to go to one of the city's shelters.

The Cold Weather Emergency program, the city's controversial policy that D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke has urged the District to adopt, gives police officers here the right to force people to come in from the cold whenever the temperature falls below 32 degrees.

Since it went into effect on Nov. 20, almost 700 people have been taken from the streets by the police. Most have gone willingly, but about 30 have not, according to the city Human Resources Administration, which oversees the city's $200 million shelter programs.

On cold nights, between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., police officers are required to determine whether people on the street "have any realistic recourse to protection from the elements," according to a directive issued by Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward.

If they do not, patrol officers are empowered -- after conferring with a supervisor -- to take them to a hospital or shelter.

The program, which is one facet of New York's attempt to respond to a homeless population that by all accounts is growing at an alarming rate, has been called a lifesaver by its proponents and a shallow public relations tool by its critics.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been vocal in its opposition, saying the program violates the civil rights of the homeless. But city officials say they are only trying to keep their promise of providing a bed and meal to all who are in need of them.

"It is a logistical nightmare to house 25,000 people every night and this program helps keep people alive," said Jack Deacy, spokesman for the Human Resources Administration. "It is a major battle every single day. These people are in danger. They could die out there and we want to help them. That's the bottom line."

New York Mayor Edward I. Koch decided to allow the police to take street people to municipal hospitals after several people with long histories of psychiatric problems froze to death.

Last week, two more persons died from the cold on New York streets. Two persons also froze in Washington, prompting Clarke to ask Mayor Marion Barry to enforce an existing rule. A D.C. law allows city officials to remove people from the street and take them to hospitals for observation, but is not currently used.

Koch, appearing yesterday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," said the community has "a right to make sure that those people have a warm place in which to spend the night. We are doing that in the city of New York. There are very few people out on the streets tonight, or in any prior night this month, who have to be there."

New York City officials estimate that more than a third of the city's homeless people have significant psychiatric histories. Many were released from institutions in the last decade, they say.

"I have no argument with this program on an emergency basis," said Robert M. Hayes, head of the Coalition for the Homeless. "But it just diverts attention from the real issue, which is that there is an acute lack of shelter in this city."

Hayes and others have often said that the dwindling numbring with some of his work. number of homeless has increased in the last several years.

Hayes said that even when people are taken to one of the municipal hospitals, they sometimes have to wait days to be admitted.

"These decisions are made on the basis of the availability of beds in the hospital, not need," he added.

A homeless person taken to New York's municipal hospitals -- usually Bellevue, Harlem or Metropolitan -- is given a routine psychiatric evaluation, according to a spokesman for the city Health and Hospitals Corporation. Doctors in the psychiatric emergency room decide whether the person should be admitted.

Those who are not are usually taken to one of the city's 20 publicly run shelters.

"You have to put this in the context of all the city is trying to do to cope with the problem of the homeless," said Jo Boufford, president of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation. "This is a crucial emergency measure. It may not change long-range behavior, but for desperate people, it works."

Police officers and medical personnel say that part of the problem with taking the homeless off the streets by force is that many would rather risk freezing than spend a night in one of the city's shelters, which the officers and medical experts say are unsafe and unclean.

"I have had patients get their medicine stolen in the shelters," said Dr. Gary Kalkut, a senior resident at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "People with any illness just refuse to go to them. They get beat up. When the police come to bring them to a hospital, these people often think it means they will end up in a shelter."

In the early hours this morning, several men standing outside the main intake shelter for men at the Bowery and Third Street in Manhattan approached a visitor and asked if he was going to Bellevue Hospital. "I am a sick man, a handicapped person," said one without shoes or socks. "I need medical treatment, not this place."

"You have to be pretty sick to stand half-naked on a steam pipe in the middle of the winter," said an officer with the 9th Police Precinct in lower Manhattan. "But there are some very disturbed people here. "

Maybe it's hard to believe, but there are hundreds of people out there right now freezing. They may be afraid of the police, but they are not competent to make those decisions. What kind of crank thinks we are abusing the rights of people who are killing themselves in the cold?"