Hand-cut, paper letters that spell "Happy Birthday to My Sons" remain on the picture window that Stanley Simpson cleaned often to give his boys a clear view of the courtyard outside room 301 at a shelter for homeless families.

So that the children's view would not be marred, neighbors recalled, Simpson used to remove trash from that section of the courtyard, where during happier times he played football with his two handicapped sons and proudly proclaimed to others walking by, "These are my boys."

This week, room 301 became a crime scene and the man who neighbors saw as a devoted father was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing deaths of his sons, Dwayne Stephen Barnes, 8, and Jerome Clayton Barnes, 4. Both boys had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair.

The boys' deaths and Simpson's arrest were heartbreaking shocks to the homeless families who live at the Capital City Inn, one of the primary emergency shelters funded by the District government. The tragedy has also highlighted the pressures and stress faced by the families, some of whom have lived in the hotel for a year.

One homeless man, who knew Simpson, said the pressure of being homeless is so great that several times he considered killing himself and his children.

"I thought he {Simpson} was stronger than me because sometimes he would put on a happy face," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "I thought of taking my kids' life a lot of times. I felt so sad because my wife wasn't with us. It was so much on just me. I cared so much and I couldn't take it that she didn't care. I felt so depressed I didn't think of anything but checking out and taking my kids with me."

Several times when he felt he might lose control, the man said, he called D.C. Department of Human Services workers who "talked to me and showed a lot of concern."

At the Capital City Inn on New York Avenue NE, the inability of some of the 198 homeless families -- 200 adults and 767 children -- to cope with pressures is evident. City officials say parents have left children alone for several hours and in some instances, several days. Allegations that some families are abusing drugs has prompted D.C. Social Services Commissioner Marjorie Hall Ellis to conclude, "We have a problem there and we will have to address it."

The human services office has four social workers based at the shelter to handle families' basic problems. Although a sign on the door says visits are by appointment only except in emergencies, Ella McCall-Haygan, the chief social worker, said counselors see families at least once a week and sometimes more often.

The human services office is a hub for what has become a small community within a shelter hotel, where each wing is like a city block. People move in and out.

Some make little effort to know who lives beside them. Others lean on each other for emotional support in an informal network where borrowing a cigarette can be a way of opening a neighbor's door to talk over problems.

In this homeless community, Dwayne and Jerome Barnes were special children whom people reached out to and were rewarded with the boys' smiles. It is a community where Stanley Simpson was viewed as a man who met his responsibiltiy as a father and tried to help others.

When celebrities gave a Christmas party for the homeless at the Washington Convention Center, Simpson helped coordinate the bus that took his sons and other handicapped children to the party.

Residents said Simpson made a point of taking pictures there of his sons with members of the Washington Redskins.

The Barnes children had lived at the shelter with their mother, Venita Barnes, for about 10 months after being evicted for not paying rent at their apartment, according to city officials. Simpson was not officially registered as a member of the family under the city shelter program, but residents said he periodically stayed with the family.

District authorites, who initially said they were uncertain whether Simpson was the father of the boys, said yesterday they believed he was.

While in Barnes' care, the boys were often heard crying in the mornings because they were unattended, residents said. One woman said she called the shelter security at least four times in three months to report that the children were alone. On such occasions, she said, shelter workers would keep the children in the office until an adult returned.

A social worker who has been in touch with Barnes said Barnes was not available for comment.

Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, Simpson called the shelter's office and told a security officer that "he had stabbed his two kids," according to a police affidavit. A police source said Simpson, who had given thought to the children's health and their circumstances, portrayed the slayings as mercy killings.

"There was no indication to us that things were as bad as they were," said Daryl, a homeless man who knew Simpson well and who asked that his full name be withheld.

"Homeless people understand the pressure, we wish only that Stan would have come to us. There is a lot to this. If people just see the final chapter and read that a black man killed his children, they have missed what this is all about."

Yesterday, there were 515 homeless families, including 314 families living in hotel rooms, in the District government's emergency shelter program. On average, 15 families per month move out of the hotels into permanent housing and another 43 families come into the system.

"We want to get those families out of Capital City as soon as we can find a place to put that many adults and children," said Commissioner Ellis. "With families coming in it is difficult to empty a room."

Meanwhile, for some homeless families, recent actions took on new meaning.

One homeless woman recalled that Simpson gave her a stuffed pink animal for her daughter. "He told me, 'When she wakes up give this to her and tell her I love her,'" she said.

Another man said Simpson gave him some of Simpson's old shirts and a baseball cap that could have been worn by one of Simpson's sons: "He was giving signals and it never, never dawned on me that he was giving away his kids' things."