A steady current of warm air billows up from the Tenleytown Metro station and settles at the entrance to the Sears store next door. A section of the Wisconsin Avenue NW store extends over the sidewalk there, offering people protection from the wind and rain.

The warm, weatherproof site also attracts as many as 10 homeless men who linger there by day and sleep there at night, disturbing many residents of the upscale Tenleytown neighborhood.

Some residents say they are frightened to walk past the men, who often fight among themselves, beg for money, hurl insults at passersby and sleep so that commuters literally have to step over them to reach the Metro station escalators.

Commuters also complain that the homeless create sanitation problems. They call one homeless man "The Vinegar Man" because he regularly pours a bottle of vinegar on himself and the sidewalk to cover up urine and vomit odors.

Fed up with the problem, a few residents pleaded with their local advisory neighborhood commission recently to lobby Metro officials to lock out the men with a gate, as they have done at other stations. Metro officials said they have looked into installing a gate but remain noncommittal because of budget woes.

Other residents acknowledge the problem but pity the men, bringing them blankets and food. Some have also rushed to oppose attempts to get a gate installed, criticizing the move as ineffective and the people asking for it as unfeeling.

ANC Chairman Stephen Raiche said he doesn't know who deserves more sympathy, the "poor people who sleep there or the poor commuters who have to run the gantlet."

The debate mirrors the controversy citywide over Referendum 005 on the ballot in Tuesday's election, asking voters if they want to reinstate the city's right-to-shelter law. The D.C. Council effectively overturned the law during the summer because, council members said, it was costing the city too much money.

Since the council vote, the city has reduced services to the homeless, and the contingent of Tenleytown regulars has grown, said Paul Strauss, an ANC commissioner.

ANC commissioner Diane Sheahan said many people have told her they are afraid to use the station at night. Her 13-year-old daughter is too nervous to go to the station alone, she said.

Resident Frances Atchison said she and several neighbors feel sorry for the men and have given them blankets and food. Nevertheless, she thinks a gate is a good idea. Sleeping on the sidewalk is "not an appropriate way for someone to live," she said.

Strauss and others disagree. They say a gate would keep the homeless away only when the station is closed and not solve the problem.

"The biggest complaint we get is from citizens being harassed when leaving the station," he said. "Locking people out from a source of heat just as the weather is getting cold is morally wrong."

When Metro installed gates at several downtown stations three years ago, the move triggered protests. But the gates remain.

Lt. Roger Chapman of the police department's 2nd District said there is not much police can do besides suggest that the homeless go to a shelter. "We are interested in violations against the law. It is not against the law to be homeless."

And Kathleen Partridge, a resident who let a homeless man live in her basement and garage for four years, said the problem is attitude. She said many "well-heeled" residents in upper Northwest believe that because they purchased expensive homes their lives should be insulated from the poor.

"Look, when you come out of the Metro station, you're on your way to a cozy home and fireplace and good food. Can't you just walk by {the homeless} without having a fit?" she said.

Gus Polk, manager of the Sears store, said the homeless hurt business because elderly customers are afraid to come in. But he said doesn't know if a gate would be a solution. "A lot of residents regard it as a Sears problem," he said. "But it's not a Sears problem. It's not a Metro problem. It's not a police problem. It's our problem -- a problem for society."