E. Fuller Torrey is both simplistic and wrong in blaming homelessness on lawyers "acting on behalf of their own ideals and not their clients' needs" {"The Homeless in the Subway: There's Nowhere for Them to Go," Close to Home, Oct. 25}. He mistakenly asserts that mentally ill people are homeless in the District of Columbia because "groups like the Mental Health Law Project continue to petition the court to release from mental hospitals an ever-increasing number of patients."

Quite the opposite. Our goal in representing mentally ill District residents over the past 13 years, in the Dixon case and other activities, has been not simply patients' release but creation of the housing and mental health services our clients need to live with dignity in the community. Torrey puts himself in the odd position of attacking the organization that has been most aggressive in challenging the District government's dismal failure to comply with its detailed plan to provide these services, endorsed by the federal district court in the 1980 Dixon order.

For the record, here are some of the programs the Mental Health Law Project is pressuring the city to adopt for its mentally ill citizens:

Emergency health to people in trouble -- a van with staff trained in crisis procedures that will go to Metro stations, back alleys, shelters or wherever a person is experiencing urgent distress;

Permanent housing -- small group homes and individual or shared apartments with the help necessary to enable people to live independently, such as homemaker services or respite care for families.

Case management -- a trained advocate/helper/service broker to help the mentally ill person get needed services, from food stamps to mental health care.

Employment and training opportunities, including jobs with flexible hours and conditions for people who face problems with stress.

Innovative approaches to increasing affordable housing, such as renovation by the city of vacant public housing units, tax incentives for private developers and a workable rental-assistance program.

Without programs such as these, is it any wonder that a person who is mentally ill has nowhere to go but the Metro station?

Torrey ignores the kinds of pragmatic solutions to the problems of homeless people that we advocate. Instead, the primary focus of his article is on changing commitment laws to take more homeless people off the streets and place them in St. Elizabeths Hospital for a while. How could that help?

Most mental illness is episodic, and many people become stabilized with appropriate treatment. In the District the average length of stay at St. Elizabeths Hospital is less than three months. When a responsible physician makes a clinical judgment that hospitalization is no longer necessary, the person is released. Then what? Does Torrey advocate confining such a person indefinitely?

Unless we are prepared to keep mentally ill people locked up in hospitals for the rest of their lives simply because society has failed to provide anything else, changing commitment laws won't help homeless people at all. It will not guarantee mentally ill people what they really need: a decent place to live and supportive resources in the community. Rather than relax its commitment standard, the District should develop the kinds of programs advocated by the Mental Health Law Project and ordered by the federal court to help people who are homeless find and keep a home.

Confusing liberty with abandonment and then blaming it for homelessness is just as retrogressive as blaming homeless people themselves for their plight. To make homelessness a matter of personal pathology ignores what it really represents: our failure as a community to accept the responsibility of providing for our most needy citizens. -- Arlene Kanter The writer is a staff attorney for the Mental Health Law Project.