One night two winters ago, Odell Harris, a 62-year-old homeless man, was treated for hypothermia at a local hospital. He had been sleeping outside on a heating grate as he had, on and off, for six years.

Released the same night, he was given written instructions to eat balanced meals, avoid alcohol and sleep indoors. Just below these instructions was a blank for his address that read: no fixed address.

Weak and exhausted, Harris made his way to a shelter at Second and D streets NW, where his life finally began to change.

Attendants there, recognizing that he needed better care than their large and sometimes boisterous shelter could provide, found a place for him at the Victor Howell House in Columbia Heights, a nursing home for the homeless that specializes in getting people back on their feet and finding housing for them.

Harris spent several months there while the staff arranged public housing and Social Security payments -- benefits he had been unaware of or unable to attain, and on which he still lives.

The Victor Howell House at 1304 Euclid St. NW, named in memory of a local activist who worked with the homeless and who died in 1983, was founded by members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a local activist group, to provide postoperative care to the homeless.

"Most people, when they get out of the hospital, need to be cared for, need rest and good food," said Andrew Lawrence, one of the volunteers at the house. "This place provides those things to homeless people."

Five live-in volunteers at the 14-bed home provide guests with three meals a day and help with bandages, medication and applications for public assistance.

Dr. Douglas Van Zoeren of Capitol Hill Hospital makes weekly rounds to the house to advise guests.

The Victor Howell House is funded by private donations and runs on a shoestring budget.

Most of the home's food is collected from vendors at the Florida Avenue and Jessup wholesale produce markets.

The home also receives some staples from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It costs just a little more than $3 a day to provide for a patient, according to Lin Romano, another volunteer at the house.

Despite what Lawrence said was "a constant struggle" to pay the rent and keep the house supplied with bandages and food, staff members are rarely forced to turn away people in need, and succeed at providing a relaxed and caring environment in which their guests can heal.

"What does this house mean to me? It means my life," said one guest, who is blind in one eye and has a degenerative bone disease that makes it difficult to walk.

"I had no benefits, no Social Security records, and no one else would take care of me.

"No one cares for people as kindly as they care for people here -- except the way a mother cares for her child," she said.

Another guest, a man in his fifties, said, "I was sleeping on the grates until I had my operation {for a double hernia and other ailments} at the VA hospital. Afterward, I didn't want to go out and sleep on the grate. Luckily, Lin Romano came and brought me here."

The staff at Victor Howell House receives praise from local hospital social workers as well.

"They are really a gift to the community," said Sandra Butcher, director of social work services at George Washington University Medical Center.

"They provide the kind of caring environment these people need. They're not out to change people. They're out to mobilize them.

"More than that, they take people no one else will."

Victor Howell House accepts people who prove troublesome to other facilities: who are on methadone treatments, who test positive for AIDS antibodies, who for one reason or another cannot be cared for in a private nursing home.

Many homeless people refuse to go to traditional nursing homes because they avoid such a regulated environment, Butcher said.

"The illnesses people have here really run the gamut," Lawrence said.

On a recent visit, the ailments afflicting guests included cancer, nervous disorders and broken limbs.

Many of the patients at Victor Howell House suffer from results of exposure and beatings -- the toll life on the streets takes.

"We get people with broken arms, broken legs and head injuries," Lawrence said.

"People think the homeless are dangerous, but they seem to bear the brunt of most of the violence on the street. You try sleeping outside at Thomas Circle some night."