Mitch Snyder, the saintly terrorist, has taken himself hostage again.

This time, his demand is that the Metro transit authority allow his beloved "street people" to sleep in the well of the escalator at the Farragut West station. His weapon for enforcing that demand: another hunger strike.

The trouble -- and the reason for the installation of the fence in the first place -- is that these homeless people were leaving early morning subway riders to deal with the garbage, the human waste and the awful stench they routinely left behind them.

You don't have to be a saint to see that the public has a duty to do something about the growing number of homeless people in this city. You don't have to be a heartless monster to conclude that allowing them to foul the subway system is not the answer.

Snyder makes it look easy.

"For 10 years," he says, "the homeless have been sleeping at the bottom of the escalators from midnight, when the stations close, to 6 a.m., when service resumes. Nobody enjoys fighting for space at the bottom of escalators. The problem is there's not enough shelter space. We're thousands of beds short of having enough.

"These stairwells are not much different from heat grates" -- long a favorite sleeping spot for the homeless -- "and you might remember that the federal government tried to close those up. They just wanted the homeless to disappear. The same thing is true with the stairwells. We're not asking Metro to do anything, just to stop fencing the homeless out."

But what of the unsanitary mess they leave for Metro's customers?

"If Metro's concern is that they use the stairwells as a bathroom, the problem is that there is not one public bathroom in downtown Washington that's open all night. It's a crime to urinate or defecate in public, so they do it where they are. If that's the problem, let's put up some portable toilets in some inconspicuous space and see if that works."

But he won't just make the recommendation. He insists that he won't eat until Metro accepts it.

The trouble is not that Snyder is wrong but that he cannot accept the possibility that anyone could disagree with him, or have a different priority, and still be right.

"The fence was purely a management decision," says Metro General Manager Carmen Turner, who said she would keep it in place. "We had human waste in those areas. We had problems with rusting in the escalators. We had problems with the smell. Over the years, this has grown into a significant problem."

Curiously, given the escalation of the escalator war, only a few people are affected -- "maybe six to 10 at Farragut West on a cold night and as many more at two or three other stations," according to Snyder. It seems a small gain for the damage to a subway system that has spent millions of dollars and much effort to keep the facilities clean -- including the recent arrest of Fawn Hall for eating a banana in a Metro station.

But if the benefit is small, the symbolism is huge, Snyder insists.

It may have started as an operational decision," he says, "but nobody thought about the implications. Now the fence has come to represent a wish to make the homeless disappear, and that's a very dangerous thing. If that fence stays up, other fences will go up. If the gates stay up, our hearts remain closed."

That, not to put too fine a point on it, is eloquent and arrogant nonsense.

"I'm not insensitive," says Turner. "In any large metropolitan area, there are lots of things that go on that you are sensitive to and that, as an agency, you might assist in doing something about. I'm sensitive to the plight of the homeless, but my mission is to provide quality mass transit. The smell, the trash, the human waste -- that's not what we want for our transit system."

Snyder's not buying. "We just don't care enough," he says of a city that he acknowledges is doing far more than most for its homeless. "I admit taking down the fences won't solve the problem for the homeless. There should be space for everybody who is outside and would come inside."

Of course there should be, and it's one of the reasons Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence has upped the capacity of its shelter, now under renovation, from 1,000 to 1,700. But even adding those spaces to the several hundred beds in city-run shelters leaves a dismaying shortfall. One study suggests there are upwards of 6,500 homeless people -- including single women and families -- in Washington, and fewer than 2,000 beds to accommodate them.

Who are these homeless? According to Snyder, 10 percent to 15 percent are single women, most of whom are mentally disabled. Single men account for a third to a half, and the rest are "young minority men, either jobless or working for minimum wage, who can't afford housing; older folk on fixed income; and alcoholics. A third or more are families, the fastest growing category."

Given the scope of the problem, the contretemps over the Metro escalators seems almost trivial, hardly worth Snyder's newest threat to starve himself to death unless he gets his way.