On one recent evening, eight Salvadorans, who have turned the back yard of an abandoned house on Irving Street NW into a camp, gathered for dinner under a canopy of trees. Placing a large pot on a makeshift stove, one man dropped in a raw chicken, cut up a tomato and an onion with a plastic knife and stirred the soon-to-be chicken soup with the Styrofoam top of an egg carton.

Nearby, two other men, one with an eye swollen shut from a fight, slept on old mattresses. The others talked of having left war-torn El Salvador and of how on some days as many as 20 men join them in the yard to eat, play cards, sing and ease the pain of memories with heavy doses of vodka.

Homeless and fearful that openly seeking employment could mean deportation, a group of Salvadoran immigrants who came here in search of peace is living in primitive conditions in the yards and alleys of the Northwest neighborhood of Mount Pleasant.

They are not the only such nomads. According to their leader, an English-speaking 34-year-old man who calls himself "the boss," there is an ad hoc subculture of homeless Salvadorans here. He said several groups of unemployed men, each with its own "boss," live in and around vacant houses and sleep in parks and abandoned cars. Their possessions are stashed in vacant houses, under brush and in garages throughout the area.

Organizations that provide support services to immigrants say that illegal Salvadorans, who make up the largest group of the estimated 300,000 people in the Washington area's Hispanic community, have become a high-risk group. In addition to the normal adjustment problems stemming from language barriers and the loneliness of living without families, they face extra burdens from the new federal immigration law.

The law provides amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been in the country since Jan. 1, 1982, but most Salvadorans arrived here after that date and do not qualify. There have been reports of firings and evictions of Salvadorans, and with jobs and housing becoming harder to find, the fear of discovery and deportation increases. The result, social service providers say, is confusion and panic.

"In Latin America it is acceptable for men to gather in parks and drink socially," said Arlene Gillespie, director of the District's Office of Latino Affairs. "If you lose your job and you have nothing else to do, there is a thin line between when you stop drinking socially and begin to drink too much. If they {the homeless men} had jobs they would not be living the way they are living and they would not be drinking."

Gillespie and others fear that homelessness may increase and create further problems: Last year, in a house only doors from the Salvadoran camp, nine persons, including six Salvadorans, were killed in a fire. The basement apartment where the fire began was a haven for homeless immigrants.

David Harrington, who has worked in and trained counselors for the Hispanic community for 15 years, said that while some Salvadorans can begin to settle down as a result of the new law, others who will never be recognized as citizens may be forced to live by their wits.

"The homeless men are the {first} of some losers in a readjustment struggle," said Harrington. "These people came here illegally and were never taken care of by public services. Now it is four or five years later and they are coming to the attention of the community." Chronic drinkers, he said, are among the first to lose out when necessities like employment and housing become scarce.

But Sylvia J. Rosales, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center, said homeless Salvadorans, especially those who suffer from alcoholism, are a small group of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Salvadorans in the metropolitan Washington area. She said most Salvadorans who can no longer survive underground would prefer returning home to living in the streets, and described the behavior of the men on Irving Street as "highly unusual."

"Living outside and drinking is a danger to their survival," said Rosales. "They know in order to stay in this country they have to be undetected. They have to behave well and respect the law and not do anything to attract the INS {Immigration and Naturalization Service}."

People in the Irving Street neighborhood, a racially and economically mixed community, say they are sympathetic to the homeless but can no longer tolerate the presence of intoxicated people who use yards throughout the area for sleeping, bathing, urinating and defecating.

"There were nights we couldn't drive through the alley because there were beds and bed frames and people piled up out there and living in garages," said homeowner Ty Cullen, who has lived on the block for 11 years.

Homeowner Danath Roden and her husband tried recently to move away from their homeless neighbors by placing a contract on another house, with the condition that they sell their house first. But when the seller stopped by and saw the Salvadoran camp, the contract offer was rejected.

The leader of the homeless group has one basic response to complaints from the neighbors and the reluctance of some to provide the men with water: "They discriminate against us," he said. "We are homeless and we live here. In El Salvador three things you do not deny -- water, fire and salt."

The groups, according to the Irving Street camp boss, have developed their own methods of survival. To buy food, they rely on money from those who work and the quarters they get from begging. Clothes, he said, are secured from churches and charities and often thrown away when they get dirty.

The band of homeless men at one time or another has attracted the attention of most neighborhood residents. The reactions of some, such as 81-year-old Lloyd Johnson, have evolved from irritation to demands for help from the District government. "We haven't been able to sit out on the porch for two years because it ain't nothing to see drunks passed out on the porch," said Johnson, a carpenter who has lived on the block for 22 years.

At 5 a.m. recently, Johnson was on his way to work when he confronted one of the homeless men. "I caught one of them up the street washing up in a neighbor's yard," said Johnson. "I made him get out of there."

What Johnson, who does not speak Spanish, had no way of knowing was that the homeless man also was preparing for work. The 40-year-old Salvadoran, a construction worker who talked on the condition that his name not be used, said he helps buy food for the group and stays with them because they have become his only family. He said he left his wife and three children, then aged 7, 3 and a few months, in El Salvador several years ago after three of his brothers were killed.

"I know who killed them and they threatened me, so I left," said the graying Salvadoran. "I keep on writing but nobody answers back. I don't know what happened to {the family}. In spite of everything, I can't go back because they would kill me."

At that point, the boss, seated in his special place, an old gray swivel office chair, interrupted to turn the conversation to a lighter subject. He serves as a mediator of sorts, speaking for the group when neighbors summon the police or fire department, making certain the men have food and trying to keep them from fighting or losing heart.

To the pleasure of the men around him, his accounts of his problems -- a failed marriage, alcoholism and being deported three times -- were interwoven with tales of his seemingly endless romances. At one point, he laughingly launched into a song in Spanish: "Why, God, did you make me so perfect? God, why didn't you give me any defects? I suffer so much because I am different. I want to be ugly like all these people."

The District government is well aware of the situation on Irving Street. Last week, residents met with city officials for the second time, and the next day the city began hauling trash out of the alley between Mount Pleasant and Irving streets.

"Shelters, even to the extent that they are available, cannot be forced upon people," said John Pressley, a representative for the Office of Community Services. "You have to work with problems of this sort and deal with it in a compassionate way."