The U.S. Labor Department, under pressure to help ease the nation's homeless rate, is funding an experimental training program in the District that uses jobs to teach life skills and commitment to homeless men who have marketable skills.

The program is called Jobs Have Priority, and is built on the premise that the key to breaking the cycle of joblessness, poverty and homelessness is the success of getting a job and keeping it.

Participants must pass a rigorous selection process that requires them, among other things, to be drug free.

A staff of five, paid for by a $250,000 Labor Department grant, helps accepted participants find jobs and learn how to keep them.

The staff follows the men's progress and offers counseling to those who consider quitting.

The program, run out of the Trust Shelter at 14th and Q streets NW, already has placed nearly 100 men in jobs and eased the transition to near independence, according to program leaders.

The successes include men like Christopher Campbell, 24, who had been unemployed for most of the past six years.

Campbell, a recovering crack addict with a high school diploma but few skills, had been a frequent resident of D.C. emergency shelters.

An intense young man who grew up in Prince George's County, he started using drugs soon after he went off to college in Shepherdstown, W. Va.

He tried several recovery programs without success, he said, then found religion and stopped cold turkey.

Last spring another homeless man told him about Jobs Have Priority.

Campbell "went after that chance like a dog after a bone," he said. "I just said, 'that's enough, if I just lay here I could be here for years.' "

Today Campbell works full time as a cooking teacher at Operation Outreach, a program of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, where he is paid about $14,000 a year.

He now lives with a relative, but with the money he has saved since he started working last May, he plans to move into his own apartment soon and enroll at the University of the District of Columbia.

The program is the inspiration of about 25 professionals, mostly accountants, lawyers and consultants, who got together in 1988 and decided they wanted to do something for homeless people.

They started by raising funds, then applied last year for some of the $676 million in grants made available by the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Act of 1988.

The program opened in January. Placements so far have included jobs in everything from computers to construction and nursing.

"We saw a lack of job training and sought a permanent rather than a temporary solution," said Teresa Fama, a health care research consultant who is one of the program's founders.

Caseworker Stephanie Percy-Jarrett said the program has helped homeless men ranging "from those who have yet to finish high school to Harvard graduates and PhDs."

She attributes Jobs Have Priority's success to its selectivity. Of 650 interviewed since opening day, fewer than 200 have been accepted.

Of those accepted, "the majority . . . have skills, a trade, and had careers," said Percy-Jarrett. "But they just sort of fell off the tracks, and now they need some help to get back on."

Getting them back can be surprisingly easy, "sometimes just a matter of supporting services: bus tokens to get to the job, money for a clean shirt . . . nickel and dime stuff," said caseworker Bob Fry.

Employers generally are willing partners, Percy-Jarrett said, because they "could care less where you live. They're interested in you getting to work and doing the work, and that's it."

The staff offers advice on all aspects of restructuring their lives, giving them pointers for job interviews, helping them get through the difficult first few weeks of employment and following up with classes in personal money management.

"They do the checkup and the follow-up on me . . . and keep in touch and help me plan and organize if I need it," Campbell said. "So I don't hang around anymore. I go to work, come home, church, no partying, no nothing."

But the conversion is not always so easy.

"All of the case managers get very frustrated sometimes when after spending so many hours with the clients, doing everything to make sure they'll be successful, they go and make hasty, sometimes very poorly thought-out decisions -- spending paychecks that should be saved -- just when everything seems to be going well," Percy-Jarrett said.

Rather than abandon them, however, the program's policy is for the client and the caseworker to start over.

Campbell said the expectations of his caseworker are what have helped him the most.

"They don't pat you on the back. They just tell you how to get out there and deal for yourself," he said. "And I don't want to lean on anybody." Christopher Campbell, left, teaches cooking at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington in Southeast. Students Fikadeselasse MeKonnen, Almaz Haila, Ron Moore and Michael Johnson practice some of kitchen skills he has taught them.