Metro has installed chain-link gates at an entrance to the Farragut West subway station to prevent vagrants from sleeping there at night and creating what officials describe as a foul mess.

"We were concerned about the health and well-being of our passengers and our employes," Metro spokeswoman Beverly Silverberg said, adding that similar action might be taken at other stations.

According to Metro workers and commuters who use the Farragut West station, homeless people had been taking shelter at the base of the 17th Street escalators and using the area as a toilet.

Metro employes complained about the odor and the daily cleanup, and passengers called the situation offensive, transit officials said.

"It's terrible. It stinks to high heaven," one station attendant said. "You can't wash it away. Steam only makes it worse," said another.

The gates went up this week after technicians who service the escalators for Metro demanded that the agency remedy the situation. The odor lingers, but Metro riders said they had not seen vagrants at Farragut West since the fence went up.

The eight-foot-high gates, which cost $3,700, will remain in place until Metro engineers can design "esthetically attractive" permanent barriers, Silverberg said.

Metro already has gates at its 60 stations, barring access to the mezzanines, which include Farecard vending machines and turnstiles.

While Farragut West personnel welcomed relief from what they considered a health hazard, advocates for the homeless criticized Metro's action, saying it could subject street people to added danger and hardship, particularly with the onset of cold weather.

"I consider it reasonably unconscionable," said Mitch Snyder, spokesman for the Community for Creative Non-Violence, an advocate for the homeless. He said the tunnel into the Farragut West station afforded some protection against the elements, and that the homeless who gathered there might now face a harsher existence.

"It's a heartless thing," said Sharon Winget, a social worker with Health Care for the Homeless, a private nonprofit group that sends medical teams to help the homeless. Winget said almost all of the approximately half-dozen people displaced by the gates are elderly, chronically mentally ill and defenseless.

Social workers said Metro could have solved its problem by installing a public toilet, but Silverberg rejected that suggestion.

Although Metro sympathizes with the plight of the homeless, "we are here to provide public transportation," she said. "There are other agencies that are set up to provide housing and sanitary facilities for the homeless."

As Metro seeks a cost-effective and less obtrusive means of keeping street people out of its stations, Silverberg said it was also considering whether new gates should be installed at some stops, such as McPherson Square and Dupont Circle, which have similar problems with vagrants.

Given the shortage of shelter space citywide, homeless people might be left to wander the streets if Metro locks the entrances to other stations, Winget said. Crowding and adverse conditions in the city's shelters already deter some homeless people from seeking refuge there, she said.

A supervisor at Farragut West said station attendants frequently called a city shelter to help the homeless people who collected at the 17th Street entrance, but that the vagrants often refused to leave, preferring to huddle inside the entrance.

Riders interviewed as they waited for trains at the Farragut West station this week had a mixed reaction to the new chain-link gates. Many said they had not found the presence of vagrants offensive, but others praised Metro's action.

"I think it's great . . . . You had to beat your way through {vagrants} to get through the station," said Thomas Haynes, who commutes between West Falls Church and the Oliver Carr Co. downtown.

"I don't think the solution is letting them sleep in subway stations," he added.