Ruth Long's children are all grown now. But she has a new family to care for -- the people who live on her block of Swann Street NW.

Over in Congress Heights in Southeast, Hannah Hawkins, a mother of five grown children, has turned an abandoned community center into a haven for several dozen neglected children who live near her.

And in Shaw, Fred Inman, 72 and a retired auto mechanic, sits on his stoop and watches over his alley neighborhood, chasing away unsavory strangers who wander over from several nearby drug markets, even propping a mirror against a front window so he can keep his eye on the whole block at a glance.

They are part of a largely unnoticed and unhailed side of the city and all its wrenching killings, poverty, addictions and homelessness. While national studies show that more organized outreach efforts are being manned by older, retired citizens, these three stand out because they hold fast to the concept of neighborhood and have taken it upon themselves to reach out to others just because those others live near them.

Hawkins, for example, said she looked around and saw that the children who lived in several large apartment complexes in her neighborhood weren't getting "enough nurturing." Many of the parents were obviously addicted to drugs, or simply too strapped or emotionally spent to do the job, she said. Some of the children wore the same dirty clothes everyday and always seemed hungry.

So Hawkins, 51, a retired school administrative aide, said she had an idea: to turn an abandoned community center in the Sheridan Terrace apartments into a place where the children could go after school for a hearty meal, some individual attention, some discipline and her own brand of "tough love."

A business-community partnership helped her set up the center in February. News of it spread quickly, and now 35 to 40 children show up every afternoon.

Working without pay, she teaches them table manners, prayers and even a few academics. She gets them to behave because "you got to earn your way into the center."

She said she used to lecture the adult drug addicts in the neighborhood to change their lives, but gave up in frustration. With the children, she said, she has more influence to keep them from "going down the same road."

"They've become part of my family. I think of these kids even when I'm not with them," she said.

Across town, some people say Swann Street NW, shaded by its massive ginkgo trees, is one of the most charming streets in Washington. In the last decade, lots of young professionals have moved into its rows of pretty town houses. And the newcomers got more than just ginkgo trees.

They got Ruth Long.

When the United Parcel Service truck rumbles down the street, it goes directly to Long's house. She's the only one home, she explained, so she might as well disperse the packages after people get home from work. She also keeps copies of the keys for eight houses on the street, in case the owners lock themselves out.

And for several elderly residents on Swann Street, Long is more than just a good-hearted neighbor. Without her, they say, they would have to leave their homes.

Long, 49, is a fit, wiry woman, a social service agency and a department of public works all rolled into one.

Here's her typical day: At 8:30 a.m, she cooks breakfast for her bedridden neighbor, Naomi Wallace, 87. "Her husband just died a month ago," Long said. And because Wallace didn't have any clean linen that day, Long takes her clothes to the Laundromat.

Next, she checks on "Mr. Bennet and Miss Lucy" across the street. The elderly couple, Lucy and Ben Talliaferro, use wheelchairs.

Long helps them write checks to pay their bills, takes Miss Lucy to the doctor, buys their groceries, then sits down and chats with them a bit.

"They're just lonesome," she said.

In the evening, she cooks dinner for "Miss Naomi," helps "Miss Lucy get dressed and go to bed," does her own housework, "then I go to Miss Naomi and give her a back rub and change her position."

"I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't do it for them. I wouldn't be able to live in a block knowing people needed some help."

Ben Talliaferro said he would have to live in a nursing home if Long didn't visit every day.

Without her, he said, "I'd die."

Long's impact on the neighborhood is so great that some people refer to her as "the mayor."

So it is with Fred Inman, who some call the "Mayor of Third Street" because he's so protective of the families who live in his Northwest block, which is encircled by drug dealing and violence.

Inman can hardly walk. Someone shot him in the legs and stomach about 10 years ago during a robbery attempt, and now he moves delicately, in slow motion, pressing hard on his cane and dragging his twisted left leg.

Rap the top of his bald head and listen to a strange thud. The doctors installed a metal plate there after he had used his head to butt away a shotgun that had been pointed at him. He said he "stood up just in time" and knocked it away. The gun's recoil cracked his skull.

So you wouldn't blame him if he had decided to give up and turn inward. But most days, Inman is outside, sitting on his front stoop or working in the alley fixing the cars people keep bringing him.

Athough some neighbors complain that the cars clog the alley, Inman's presence there keeps crime in the neighborhood down, said George Steel, a former neighbor and a D.C. police detective.

Inman said he can't sleep most nights because of his injuries, so he sits on his front steps and keeps a lookout.

"If {a stranger} is up to something," he said, "I just keep an eye on him, and he's going to leave. If I catch somebody in a house, I don't care who he is -- he's got to answer to me."

A few years ago, he saw three burglars stealing from a neighbor, and he chased after them in his car, "pinning them so they couldn't move" until the police arrived.

"He's a courageous guy," Steel said. "He'll confront somebody in a minute."

Inman claims to be as tough as Kane, the furious, black dog he keeps chained in his back yard. But Inman's jagged, growling voice turns sweet when he teases the children who stroll by his stoop. He knows every one by name.

"I know everybody on the block," he said. "I watch them 24 hours a day."