WHEN THE NUMBER of homeless families in the city increased from 39 to 275 last year, District officials were caught completely by surprise. The city government's social service system sought hotel rooms as shelter wherever they could be found, even in a rooming house frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes. City officials now estimate that there will be 894 homeless families -- with an average of two children in each -- in need of shelter in the coming months. This time, at least the District government seems to be better prepared.

When a landlord files eviction papers in the court system for non-payment of rent, city officials want to enter the process. They would pay the family's rent while providing help in getting the family's affairs in better order. That will be far less expensive than the $2,700 per month it costs to keep a homeless family in a hotel. A city spokesman said that 67 new city staff members will be hired, and half will be assigned to seek early intervention with landlords.

A recent study of the city's homeless population surprisingly showed that the average homeless person made it to the 11th grade in school. One-fourth were receiving welfare checks, and one-fourth also had part-time jobs. Only 20 percent had no income from any source. That knowledge could allow the city to concentrate more job counseling and training on those most likely to become self-sufficient.

Evidently the District government is putting more thought into its homeless programs and will expect more from the people it is helping. This is welcome new