SIX YEARS ago, D.C. voters overwhelmingly supported an initiative that required the District government to provide overnight shelter for everyone who needed it. But the city's fiscal situation has steadily deteriorated, and the D.C. Council recently amended the right-to-shelter law to place limits on spending for the homeless. Now advocates want to take the issue back to the voters with a new initiative that would resurrect the open-ended right to shelter. It's a bad idea.

Initiative 17 created two distinct problems. As mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon suggests, the city wound up paying outrageous sums to a few hotel owners to meet the immediate requirement of the law. That meant that several private organizations that had successfully placed the homeless in permanent housing at less cost could not get adequate funding from the city. The result: many homeless people were sheltered, but in a way that encouraged further dependency and at too high a price.

Washington also faces a problem common to many large cities: there are many kinds of disadvantaged people here, and at best there is barely enough public money to spread a social service safety net for some in each group. Initiative 17 had the effect of jumping the homeless to the top of the funding list, to the detriment of others who were in need.

What about abused and neglected children and the fact that there are too few city social workers assigned to rescue them? What about the city's horrendous public health problem and the related need to reduce its high infant mortality rate? What about the need to open more community residence facilities for the elderly and disabled because of an acute shortage of nursing homes? These are just some of the pressing social service needs in this city. Should the homeless, without debate, lead the list?

Every caring person who votes in this city has a better choice to make than one that merely supports a new effort to reinstitute Initiative 17. That choice is to elect a government that uses public funds efficiently, a government that can manage to help more needy people, including the homeless, at less cost. By electing such candidates, D.C. citizens will accomplish more for the homeless, and for other disadvantaged groups in this city, than they would by mandating a single, simple right to shelter.