Mary Street, 39, wears only an Army-green blanket that falls off her shoulders, exposing the nakedness beneath. She sits like a stone at 15th and K streets, her feet wrapped in olive-colored tattered socks, her sandals held together with tape.

Street, a small, bent woman dark with dirt from street living, has attached herself to that corner in the last few months, except for a week when she was at a shelter. A gray beard grows from a hardened face that belies her age. She abandoned her clothing long ago, saying she was hot and that she was trying to rid herself of lice.

In recent weeks, office workers stepping past Street's outstretched legs have offered her money. Others, food. Some have offered to buy her clothing. Some have bought her clothing. Street politely refuses. "No, no, no," she says. "That's not right. That's money you worked hard for."

Street's story is one wrapped in the frustration that comes when human kindness becomes tangled in refusals to accept it.

In a month when the District was mourning the death of Mitch Snyder, its leading advocate for the homeless, and the D.C. government was struggling with Initiative 17 and a tide that seemed to be turning away from helping the homeless, Street encountered one person after another who wanted to help.

Unlike the common reaction of annoyance at the homeless, people seemed to want to reach out to Mary Street. But so far, that desire has been thwarted.

When passersby insist, and they often do, Street accepts donated dresses and puts them on for the buyers to admire. Later, the dresses disappear and Street returns to her blanket. After weeks of trying, an office worker persuaded Street to enter a shelter earlier this month. She decided on Monday, after 10 days under a roof, to return to the streets.

"I just came back here. I walked down the street," Street said, explaining how she found her way back from the House of Ruth in Northeast Washington to her corner in Northwest. "It's just natural. I've got my freedom."

Street, whose name could not be independently verified, said she has been homeless for about 10 years and came to Washington from Richmond four years ago seeking a job. "You can't force people to give you a job. You've got to wait," she said. "I just sit here."

Her return to the corner after she had spent a week in the shelter left those who tried to help her baffled.

"Mary has every right to do what she chooses. At the same time, so many of us out there want to help her," said Maureen Dowling, 30, who befriended Street and persuaded her to go to a shelter.

"It seems so apparent to us that being on the street is not the best thing for her," Dowling said. "But how far can we go legally? My heart says: 'Maureen, put her in the car and take her to the shelter.' My heart says regardless of what Mary may want, this is not best for Mary."

Because of civil rights protections, governments have limited power to aid those homeless people who choose to refuse it.

The city has no policy for removing the homeless from the streets, said Rae Par-Moore, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Human Services.

"We provide services to homeless people to get them into shelter . . . . We have no authority to force people to leave the street," Par-Moore said. "People are rational adults and can make decisions . . . . After all, this is a democracy. It is not a communist country where people don't have rights."

Dr. Robert Keisling, director of the city's Emergency Psychiatric Response Division, said that when homeless people appear to be dangerous to themselves or others, they can be taken off the street for evaluation and involuntarily committed for care if found to be mentally ill. However, he said, fewer than one-third of the homeless in D.C. are severely mentally ill.

Street doesn't appear to be dangerous to others, people who work in the area say. However, passersby question the rationality or her sitting on a street corner naked but for a blanket.

"Somebody asked me why {I} don't take money. Because of getting robbed," said Street, who said she sleeps at 15th and K with her back to the street to avoid those who plague homeless people at night, kicking at her bags to see what she carries. "I say, 'Don't you bring me a whole bunch of brand new things. What am I going to do with all these clothes?' "

On Friday, June 6, a day after Snyder was found dead, Dowling, who works in the building Street lives next to, slipped through Street's refusals of help and persuaded Street to go to the House of Ruth. "I told Mary I would drive her to the House of Ruth, and if she didn't like it, I would bring her back," said Dowling, a field director for the National Committee for Human Life Amendment.

Street decided to stay. Dowling took some of Street's clothing to wash. The next day she brought Street shoes, a blue scarf, a skirt and a jacket. "She looked at me and said, 'Maureen,' something to the effect of 'you stop worrying, okay?' I told her I would stop worrying eventually." During the week Street stayed at the House of Ruth, Dowling took her to dinner about three times.

Last Wednesday, at the House of Ruth, Street sat very small on a stool in a room painted pink. The soiled silk scarf had been washed, and orange and green flowers appeared. She wore a brown-and-white striped robe, and she had scrubbed her skin so much that it was peeling. The blanket, she said, she still had. "{Maureen} said because it was dirty, I should put it in the trash. I told her I would wash that." At the shelter, she had been under the care of a psychiatrist.

Saturday evening, Street went for a walk in the rain and returned to her corner. She rambled on about how there was too much to eat at the House of Ruth. There was pride in her voice as she told how she found her way back.

Dowling said she was disappointed that Street had returned to the corner, but that she was not surprised that Street had resumed wearing her blanket. "She held on to that blanket when we brought her to the House of Ruth. She wasn't willing to get rid of it."

In a last attempt to help Street, Dowling visited her Monday at 15th and K.

"I was there talking with her, trying to persuade her to go back. When it came down to it, she said, 'No, I don't won't get in your car,' " said Dowling, who said she realized then that Street's wishes should be honored. They held hands and said the Lord's Prayer. Dowling returned to her apartment in McLean. And Street sat there, waiting.