Eighteen homeless men and women holding hands in a circle at Pennsylvania and Independence avenues SE on Thursday night did not notice the stares of passersby hurrying home from work or to restaurants on Capitol Hill.

Instead, they bowed their heads and closed their eyes as Reggie Johnson, clad in jeans, a blue jacket and a knit cap, led them in the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

Some people stumbled over the words, and others spoke too slowly, but the group concluded the impromptu service with a single, resounding "Amen." Then they walked back down Pennsylvania Avenue, a disheveled group of self-described alcoholics, drug addicts and panhandlers.

The scene was the conclusion of a meeting of the Omega-Alpha brotherhood, a two-month-old fraternity of street people who live primarily along Pennsylvania near Eighth Street SE. Brought together by neighborhood church activists, group members meet twice a week in a nearby renovated building to discuss issues confronting them on the streets and in their personal lives.

Between sessions, the members live together in the doorways and Metro escalators of Capitol Hill, often panhandling to support drug or alcohol addictions.

"We are offering them a sense of unity, a sense of belonging to something," said Hal Gordon, president of the Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Church community action group, which created Omega-Alpha in December. "Here's where they start feeling and thinking like men and women again."

Gordon, 56, a retired economic development specialist with the Commerce Department, said he started working with the homeless two years ago during a church project to renovate a building at Ninth and Pennsylvania.

"When I kicked down the door to get inside the building, there was Sam {Riley} lying buried in the snow," Gordon recalled. "And I said, 'Come on in, brother, get out of the weather.' "

Riley and others began to spend nights in the building, and helped with renovation. In December, when the work was done, Gordon threw them a Christmas party.

The event turned into a rap session on street life, and, before it was over, Gordon agreed to hold twice-weekly meetings in the building, which the church group uses for offices.

A homeless man suggested calling the group Omega-Alpha, for the Matthew, 19:30 verse in which Jesus says, "Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first."

Seven of the group's 57 members completed a three-day detoxification program at D.C. General Hospital in recent weeks, Gordon said. Two of them, Ronald Jewson, 40, and Bobby Jones, 33, enrolled in a four-month rehabilitation program in Capitol Heights. Jewson, a former D.C. school custodian, said he started drinking and lost his job after his fiance'e died of lung cancer in 1989. He became homeless last summer.

The brotherhood of Omega-Alpha "means a whole lot to me {because} it lets me know that I'm not alone," Jewson said. "It boosts me up because I've got to be an example for the guys who aren't ready to go to detox yet."

Jones, a retired Army sergeant whose income from odd jobs didn't pay his rent when his roommate moved out last year, was violently sick with alcohol poisoning when members of Omega-Alpha took him to D.C. General's detoxification program last month, Gordon said.

At Thursday's meeting, Jones sported a fresh haircut and new jeans. He said he's gained 30 pounds and has not had a drink since starting rehabilitation. Several street people greeted Jones warmly on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Man, they really straightening you up. You done made my day, man," said a shabbily dressed man whom Jones knew only as "Socks." "You may wind up getting me into this junk."

Gordon said his church group wants city permission to renovate another building for the homeless.

"It is nearly impossible for a brother to recover from his addiction while sleeping in a shelter and {spending the day} out on the street," he said. "We need decent transitional housing, and we are willing to roll up our sleeves to do the renovation."