THOSE WHO oppose any proposed change in the District's right-to-shelter law continually charge that this city government wants to turn its back on the homeless. Now some members of Congress are joining the debate by blasting a fairly easy target -- the wasteful spending that has characterized the city's haphazard efforts in the recent past. Perhaps more attention should be focused on a more important question: Can the the D.C. government develop a shelter system that is far less costly and more beneficial to the homeless? The answer is yes.

Right now, for example, more "family apartment shelters" are being used. The total cost of these, about $2,500 per family per month, seems outrageous, but it currently costs the city about $4,000 to house and feed and provide social services every month for a family in a hotel. In hotels, the family gets a one-room unit, which has no kitchen. By contrast, a family apartment shelter puts the family in a real apartment at less cost. The family can apply for food stamps and have a kitchen to prepare meals, instead of being fed at city expense.

Far less expensive alternatives are finally being used with greater frequency. About a year ago, the city was still sheltering more than 450 families in hotels. That figure, say city officials, is now fewer than 250. In the last fiscal year, some 350 homeless families were moved into vacant public housing units, and private housing was found for another 382 families, these officials say. About one-third of the latter were receiving federal or local rent subsidies. Federal officials are also allowing the city to use 25 tax-foreclosed properties for families where the head of the household has a job.

City administrator Carol Thompson adds that the latest round of city contracts for housing the homeless -- a total of 18 -- was completed by means of competitive bidding and not through more expensive sole-source, no-bid contracts. All this means that the city can serve a substantial homeless population at considerably less cost, and that spending on the homeless can become less of a financial drain on a city government that has mounting fiscal troubles.