In Courtland Milloy's column yesterday, the name of the National Black Child Development Institute was incorrect. (Published 9/ 19/90)

The boy said his name was Willie, and he appeared to be about 5 years old.

"And I don't go to school," he said, smiling at a group of women as they concluded a day's work at the Black Child Development Institute, across the street from the homeless shelter where he lived.

Daisy Voigt, who was helping organize the Institute's annual conference, noticed sunlight glinting from a sliver of metal that Willie held like a pencil.

"He's got a hypodermic needle," Voigt gasped.

Evelyn K. Moore, the institute's executive director, screamed, "Is anybody watching these children?"

Although a woman eventually appeared from out of a nearby alley to claim responsibility for Willie, the facts spoke for themselves. Willie, like many of the children who live at the General Scott hotel for the homeless near 15th and Rhode Island Avenue NW, was under no careful eye.

For all that anyone knew, he already could have punctured himself with the filthy hypodermic -- or even pierced other children.

"Oh, Lord," cried the woman in the alley. "Boy, don't you know better?"

Apparently, he did not, and such is the consequence of the poverty and neglect that Moore sees from her office window each day.

Children suffering from a lack of education, malnutrition and other forms of abuse routinely play on sidewalks in front of the Institute, using as toys anything that adults leave about. Instead of Tinkertoys and Transformers, theirs is a world of bullet casings, wine bottles and syringes.

"One of the things that we will stress at our conference {which begins Thursday in Washington} is that each of us will have to reach out to individual children and try to make a difference in their lives," Moore said. "We are simply unable to get the public support we need, so the only alternative is to take matters into our own hands."

Unfortunately, poverty has become so widespread in the United States that it constitutes a "staggering national tragedy," said a report by the National Commission on Children. Children younger than 6 make up the largest group of poor in the country.

The fact that one child in five lives below the poverty level places youngsters like Willie at risk for a host of lasting problems -- especially crime, drug abuse, AIDS and mental illness.

Worse off are black children, 45 percent of whom live in poverty. But don't think that it's just children like Willie who are at risk. A study by the Columbia University National Center for Children in Poverty reports that 2.1 million of the 5 million poor children younger than 6 in this country are white suburbanites and residents of rural areas.

About 1.6 million are black and 1 million are Hispanic.

"We know these kids are going to cost us billions in the future if they are not helped," said T. Berry Brazelton, professor of pediatrics at Harvard University and a member of the National Commission on Children. "They're going to be the terrorists of the future."

"We have tried to provide some activities for the children at the homeless shelter, such as Halloween and Christmas parties," Moore said. "But when you have hundreds of them cooped up in a high-rise, you need a place for them to play outdoors. We can't even give them balls because the next thing you know they'd be chasing them into traffic."

The sight of little Willie walking around with a syringe came as a rude awakening to Moore and her colleagues.

"We had been meeting all day, talking in theoretical terms about workshops, such as 'The African American Child: Socialization, Culture and Education,' " Brenda Cooper said. "After a while, you start to wonder if organizations exist just so people will have something to belong to. Then you walk outdoors and get confronted by a kid with a hypodermic needle and . . . . "

Cooper had covered her mouth at the sight.

"I wanted to throw up," she said.

Willie's guardian was horrified, too. After discarding the syringe, she began chastising Willie.

But the 5-year-old never seemed to know exactly what he had done wrong. He simply had seen a pretty blue plaything in the street and picked it up. If it was bad, his young eyes seemed to wonder, why would it be lying there? And if people cared so much about him, why didn't he have a safer place to play?

As Willie was led back to the shelter, Voigt noticed other homeless children scouring the streets for playthings.

All she could do was cry.