THE HOMELESS men and women who endure bitter winter nights huddling over steam gratings, or sleeping in alleys, abandoned cars or any other available public spaces are the starkest expressions of urban poverty. One recent night, three Washington men died from exposure to the cold. Last winter the known toll was 11. The other night, however, a volunteer worker reported that the streets "seem to be clear" of the homeless, and this good news is partly the result of a new commitment by Albert P. Russo, director of the Department of Human Resources. Following media attention to the "night hospitality" programs at Luther Place Memorial Church and St. Stephen of the Incarnation Church, as well as the deaths of the three men, Mr. Russo met with the sponsors of those program - volunteers from the Community for Creative Non-Violence - to discuss ways DHR could help. That the city should open a shelter was the obvious conclusion. Soon after, a vacant, city-owned building at 456 C Street NW was cleaned, renovated and supplied with cots and blankets. Fourteen DHR employees were assigned to run the operation. These included counselors and nursing assistants to help serve meals and provide clothes when the shelter is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

DHR's involvement, long overdue, has made a difference. Opening night, 22 men came. The next night 52. Then 68. Three vans go out every evening to locate the homeless and bring them to the shelter. Mr. Russo, once he met with the CCNV group, pushed the right buttons to move the DHR machinery - and move it quickly without benefit f memos, study drafts or other in-basket delays. Human beings were freezing to death.

The shelter at 456 C Street NW is said by DHR to be "an interim solution." The long-range plan - presumably for adoption next winter - is to have a shelter in each of the city's four parts. "Our plan," said an official with the social services division of DHR, "is to put the operation of the four shelters out to contract and have community groups bid to run them for us." Whoever assumes final responsibility, the need for the shelters is strong. Anyone who doubts it need only visit the basements of the two churches and the DHR facility. The scenes are heartening only in the sense that at least this minimum comfort is available. The personal stories of the homeless men and women are filled with tragedy, but for now one aspect of the tragedy has been removed: the curse of having no place to sleep but the sidewalks.