U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn, hearing arguments in a suit brought Monday against the District by housing advocacy groups, declined yesterday to intervene immediately in the District's management of its emergency shelter program for homeless families.

In the suit, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Father McKenna Center and two homeless women alleged that families have been turned away by the city's shelter system and have been forced to sleep in the streets. The complainants asked the judge to issue a temporary restraining order yesterday forcing the District to provide shelter.

City officials acknowledged yesterday that they are having trouble finding shelter space for a surging number of homeless families, but denied turning families away. D.C. Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services officials said that on Monday night they began housing an overflow of homeless families at the Banneker Senior High School gymnasium.

Currently, the city is housing 413 homeless families -- 272 in hotels and the rest in transitional units -- and the city's primary emergency shelter hotels for families, the Capitol City Inn and the Pitts Motor Hotel, are full.

Ricardo Lyles, director of the shelter agency, said that of the average 30 new families who request shelter each day, the city is able to place an average of five families and has been negotiating with the others to return to homes of relatives or friends.

On Monday night, however, Lyles said that 38 families, including 68 children and 42 adults who had "no other resources," were housed in the Banneker school gymnasium. Lyles said the city is negotiating with a hotel to take the families.

"We are having trouble finding space because it's the height of the tourist season," said Eric Easter, a spokesman for the agency.

"We don't know where they {the families} are coming from. It was unexpected and it kind of hit us broadside."

The lawsuit brought by the housing advocacy groups sought the restraining order to prevent the city from denying shelter to families and from imposing "unreasonable" restrictions -- such as requiring proof of marriage, guardianship and financial need -- as conditions for entering the shelter system.

The suit contends that the District government's alleged actions violate the city's right-to-shelter law and the federal Social Security Act, which entitles homeless families to emergency shelter in jurisdictions that receive matching federal funds.

The suit claims that in some cases families, including pregnant women and children, have had to wait until midnight or later to receive assistance at the city's emergency shelter intake facility.

The District's "policy and practice is to arbitrarily deny emergency shelter to homeless families seeking such shelter," the lawsuit stated. "Families denied shelter are forced to sleep in the streets, in parks, or in their cars."

Maria Foscarinis, head of the D.C. office of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said yesterday, "It is hard to imagine a clearer case of risk to life and safety."

Judge Penn, after an hourlong hearing on the suit, denied any immediate relief and said he would take the matter into consideration and issue a written order today, according to Penn's clerk.

Evangeline Seabook, one of the two homeless plaintiffs, stated in the legal complaint that she was forced out of her apartment in June when a water pipe broke and was twice denied shelter by the city.

Seabook, who is seven months pregnant, said that after sleeping on the floor of a relative's crowded apartment, she slept in a park for several weeks.

Homeless plaintiff Clara Russell, a 27-year-old mother of three who has lived in the city since June, said she had waited three hours outside the Pitts hotel for admittance when a member of the Pitts staff about 10 p.m. announced that there was no space for the families waiting.

"Going to the Pitts was a humiliating experience for me, since I am not a 'bum' or someone who is always looking for a handout," Russell said in a court document.

"I simply needed a place to stay with my children until my {public assistance} application was processed or I found a job and could afford to pay my own rent."

The Father McKenna Center, in response to complaints of families being turned away, opened a "drop-in" center a week ago for homeless families allegedly denied shelter by the city.

Lisa Goode, a social worker for McKenna Center, which provides day services to homeless men, said 11 families have been housed by the makeshift family shelter.

Last year, the District experienced a dramatic leap of more than 500 percent in 12 months in the number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter at the government's expense.

The city's reliance on hotels to house those families touched off a controversy over the high cost of such housing.