When it comes to homelessness {editorial, Nov. 7}, The Washington Post is about as subtle as a nuclear weapon. Subway stairwells are not for sleeping. Pow! A portable toilet would only serve as a magnet. Bam! It's the District government's responsibility to deal with this, not Metro's. Whap!

No one suggests that the bottom of an escalator is an appropriate place to live. Nor is a heat grate. Yet when the federal government tried to cover the heat grates several years ago, public pressure forced it to retreat.

Shelters for homeless men and women in Washington, D.C., are full. They have been for some time. While we and city officials are making provision to create more space as quickly as possible, it is impossible for there to be sufficient shelter space for D.C.'s homeless in the near future. A study conducted for the District government three years ago by the University of the District of Columbia actually counted 6,500 homeless people in the city. That number did not include the many homeless people who are hidden in abandoned buildings and similar locations and cannot be counted. Yet there are fewer than 2,000 shelter beds currently available.

Metro does have a legitimate concern. Because there are no public bathrooms open at night, homeless people have no choice but to urinate and defecate where they are. The Community for Creative Non-Violence asked Metro to allow it to place a portable toilet in an out-of-the-way place near the top of the escalator. We would do so at our own expense.

We also offered to talk with the people who sleep there at night and encourage them to keep the area clean. It certainly wouldn't be necessary to encourage them to use the portable toilet. They hate having to defecate or urinate where they sleep. But what else can they do? Last year, when a woman who sleeps at the bottom of the escalator went into a nearby alley to relieve herself, she was raped.

The homeless are damned if they do, damned if they don't. The Post says that if a toilet were placed at the top of the escalator, it would serve as a magnet, attracting homeless people to it.

Sure, a toilet would serve as a magnet. But remember, the shelters are full. And it's a crime to defecate or urinate in public in this city. What are the homeless to do -- deny their bodily functions while waiting for more shelters to be opened?

Or should they just disappear? Is that what we really want? Do we really just want them out of sight and out of mind? Common sense, compassion and logic dictate not that we oppose placing a portable toilet near Farragut West, but rather that we make portable toilets available throughout the downtown area.

Metro says that homeless people are not their responsibility. The Post agrees. But we believe that all of us have a role to play in responding to the needs of the destitute.

We have never suggested that homeless people be allowed to sleep in the station or on the platform. All that we have ever asked is that homeless people continue to be allowed to pass the night at the bottom of the escalator, where they have been sleeping for 11 years.

Every day -- between midnight and dawn -- a gate is locked at the bottom of the escalator. The station is closed. The homeless have occupied that small space for more than a decade. Just a few dozen square feet. Now there is a gate at the top of the escalator. And they are literally out in the cold.

We must remember that the homeless men and women at the Farragut West station are human beings. They are there because there is no other place for them to be. They have been turned away from better places, because there is no room for them. They are simply trying to survive.

They are dirty because they have no place to bathe. They excrete in hidden places, because they have no choice. They try to look like the rest of us for as long as they can, and when finally they look disheveled, we shut them out.

They are not refuse. They are castaways from varied and distant shipwrecks -- individual, economic, social -- and they have washed up on our shore.

Each of these people has a right to live; each desperately needs our help. Those who are served by none of us are the responsibility of all of us. We must not allow prejudice, self-interest or a sense of propriety to supersede our more basic responsibility to serve our vulnerable brothers and sisters or, at a minimum, to tolerate their existence.

Gates are not the answer. Nor is burying our heads in the sand. Simple decency and compassion are. And they dictate that we do what we can to help save the lives of our neighbors.

The writer is the founder of Community for Creative Non-Violence.