IF YOU ARE headed down and out and planning to lead a tramp's life, Baltimore, not Washington, is the place to do it, according to the series by staff writer Neil Henry, just concluded in this paper. Though Baltimore offers a few public accommodations for such people and Washington has plenty of places, the writer found that derelicts here lead a harsher existence -- one that included intimidation, provocations and the threat of physical abuse. In Washington, street people call it "popcorn." In Baltimore, according to Mr. Henry, they are treated with more understanding by the public and police. Among themselves, they share "bojo," the entertaining talk of fanciful schemes dreamed up by tramps.

The contrast of "popcorn" and "bojo," the ways in which homeless, poor, sometimes alcoholic or mentally ill people lead their lives in the two cities -- outside the usual framework of family, community and official support -- prompts a question of social policy. Is it best for a city government to ignore these people, more or less, as Baltimore does? Or to provide quarters for them, as the District government does -- considering that those quarters can become reminiscent of war camps with guards beating ill, hungry and psychological unsettled people with nightsticks?

What works in Baltimore may not work in Washington. Baltimore has an older, more established blue-collar community whose citizens seem to have a better understanding of unemployment and of what it is like to be down on your luck. Washington is a town of many transients who may feel more in touch with ambition or with national problems than with the specific human tradegy of someone lying on the steam grate in front of the Constitution Hall. In Baltimore, the derelicts tend to be local and to concentrate downtown. In Washington, they are a more national or even cosmopolitan group, and a larger one, and they are scattered.

While it is not clear from reports what a city should do for its street people, it is evident that the shelters operated by the District government are sometimes badly run and inhumane. Said one vagabond who slept on the streets during the winter: "Yeah, yeah, I could stay in a shelter, yeah, yeah. But I wouldn't live long to tell of it, now would I?" Mr. Henry reported that he saw a guard provoke and then beat other derelicts with a nightstick. Can't this be stopped? Admittedly, these down-and-out men are not easy to help. Many are spectacularly undisciplined. But charity should extend at a minimum to not mistreating them.

The city currently plans to shut some of its shelters during the summer as a budget-cutting maneuver. That, too, seems a terrible idea. If this city has a large number of homeless people, how can it not offer them, year-round, the opportunity for some haven.