Local officials say city street cleaners and National Park Service crews are spending more and more of their time responding to requests from residents to clean and disinfect street corners, stairwells, alleys and park borders that people are using as public latrines.

From Capitol Hill to K Street, neighbors who used to register their complaints in hushed sighs are now calling for city assistance.

Early this summer, business and church neighbors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library met to discuss the stench in the nearby fountain plaza. A few weeks ago, Logan Circle leaders summoned the National Park Service to a showdown about the odor in the small, triangular park at 13th Street and Vermont Avenue NW.

Near Dupont Circle, where a telephone pole in one alley has become a drifters' urinal, residents said the issue is more than odor. They say people who do this used to stay out of sight. But now many consider the alley a private toilet and yell obscenities and hurl rocks and bottles at people who ask them to move along.

In early April, Lex Rieffel, who lives on Q Street NW, told police he was dragged from his car and roughed up by a middle-aged man after he told him to stop urinating on his neighbor's garage door in the alley behind his house.

"It demonstrates the limits of what an individual can do," said his wife, Alaire, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

Health and sanitation officials attribute the problem to the city's thousands of homeless people. Advocates for the homeless don't disagree. They simply wonder why anyone is surprised.

"What else are they supposed to do?" said Rachel Frankel of the Community for Creative Non-Violence.

Few downtown parks, where many homeless spend their days and nights, have restrooms. And although libraries, museums, government buildings and Metro stations have them, most are closed at night. Even the city's few free-standing public restrooms are locked after dark.

But residents say the homeless aren't the whole story. In sections of Capitol Hill, upper Northwest and Adams-Morgan, residents complain that it often is street vendors and tradesmen by day and bar patrons at night who relieve themselves on private lawns and in public alleys.

Grace Malakoff said that after she was elected an ANC commissioner in Adams-Morgan two years ago, she was amazed to learn that urine stench was considered "the number one issue."

John J. O'Donnell, chief of the city's sanitation department, said a growing portion of calls to his department, which now number about 10,000 a month, are requests to clean up human waste.

He also said his workers resent the assignments. "There are places so bad it will make you gag," he said.

Some abandoned stairwells in Dupont Circle, sidewalks near the city's central library and walls of the pedestrian tunnel near the Kennedy Center are so bad that no amount of disinfectant is enough, he said.

Urine cleanups are the most difficult, because while fresh urine is odor-free and sterile, bacteria attack it as soon as it hits the atmosphere, O'Donnell said. The hotter it is, the faster the urine decomposes -- and the worse it smells.

Public health officials are quick to note that it presents no real health problem, however. "I can't think of a single disease you could get from inhaling the fumes," said Martin Levy, chief of the city's preventative health services.

Still, many residents object to the effect on their environment. And tourists recoil.

"Our beautiful capital city," muttered a young mother from Iowa, eschewing the smell as she herded her three sons through McPherson Square one sweltering day in August. "Don't you people have laws?"

Indeed, violators are subject to a $25 fine or up to three days in jail, but police have to observe them in the act.

Police spokesman Shannon Crockett said the department keeps no record on the number of these citations. Neither does the National Park Service, which can hand out fines of up to $500 and send violators to jail for six months.

Park officials say they have better luck with bright lights, shrubbery pruned to make privacy impossible and neighbors who pick up the phone.

These approaches "helped a lot with all the problems we had in Franklin Square," said Sandra Alley, a Park Service spokeswoman.

O'Donnell said that a few years ago his department tended to ignore calls for these cleanups, but now they are too numerous. "Now it's out there for everyone to see," he said.

Providing enough public restrooms is not feasible, said Wayne Anderson, a professor of public administration at George Mason University. Park Service officials say a free-standing facility can cost more than $100,000, and Anderson said that unless the restrooms are supervised, they attract vandalism and more serious crimes.

Sam Marullo, an urban sociologist at Georgetown University, said the problem is more a reflection of society's disdain for the indigent.

"If the homeless had restrooms, they would use them," he said. "Considering {Americans'} obsession with bathroom privacy, it is the epitome of our callousness toward the less fortunate that we force them to go to the bathroom in public."

Residents in affected areas say the issue is more than an aesthetic obsession. They say it's about who owns their neighborhood.

"When it smells so bad you can't use your own back yard . . . you have to do something," said Dupont Circle ANC member Dennis Gaugler.