Advocates for the homeless went to the District's board of elections yesterday seeking permission to hold a referendum in November on restoring Initiative 17, the 1984 law that guaranteed housing to the city's homeless.

Even if all the preliminary steps go smoothly, organizers face a stiff timetable for collecting the signatures required to place the referendum on the ballot.

The proposed referendum would roll back the D.C. Emergency Overnight Shelter Amendment Act of 1990 and restore the provisions of Initiative 17. The shelter act, passed by the D.C. Council in June, places cost-saving restrictions on the time homeless people can remain in shelters. The cost of implementing the initiative nearly tripled from $10 million in fiscal 1985 to $27 million in fiscal 1988.

The Community for Creative Non-Violence, sponsor of the referendum, hopes to collect the required signatures by Aug. 13, the effective deadline for November ballot referendums. Organizers will not be able to distribute petitions until about the end of this month, which will leave them roughly two weeks to gather signatures.

CCNV's Carol Fennelly said she was not worried about the tight schedule. "We've done this before. We know the drill," she said at a news conference.

Tomorrow afternoon, the board of elections will hold a public hearing on the referendum. The board will determine the legality of the proposal and will hammer out language for the referendum question. Once the text of the referendum is published, most likely on Friday, there will be a 10-day period during which the public can challenge the proposal in court.

When that period is over, CCNV can begin collecting signatures. The group is required to collect signatures from 5 percent of the District's registered voters -- about 14,000 people -- including 5 percent of the voters in five of the city's eight wards.

Because of a combination of deadlines, Aug. 13 is the last day organizers can present their petitions in time for the board of elections to certify the signatures and place the referendum on the November ballot.

Organizers had to wait to make the filing until after Mayor Marion Barry signed the law and transferred it to Congress for review.

Yesterday's filing comes nearly two weeks after CCNV leader Mitch Snyder, who helped win approval for Initiative 17, hanged himself in the group's shelter.

After Snyder's Pennsylvania Avenue funeral procession last Tuesday, CCNV held a rally on the District Building steps to urge the council to reinstate Initiative 17.

Fennelly said she was confident the referendum would pass because voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 17 six years ago and because they understand the magnitude of the homeless problem.