CONGRESS, in 1987, required the government to examine its inventory of surplus, excess, and largely unused properties for land thatmight house the homeless. Advocates hailed it as a major step that could greatly reduce homelessness in America. But now, three years later, only a few sites have been put to good use. The program has fallen far short of expectations, which, as often happens, were too high in the first place.

Many of the sites that the federal agencies deemed "suitable" were in remote locations, miles from any town with homeless people in its streets. The advocates for the homeless also found that "suitable" did not necessarily mean convenient, available or without strong opposition from the neighbors.

A 12-acre lot in Arlington County known as "Barracks K," for example, was originally deemed suitable, and a group of generous people seeking to help the homeless applied for it. They spent considerable time planning 100 units of transitional housing. But the site had been used as a parking lot by the Navy for 40 years, and the General Services Administration transferred it to the Navy. A 17-month court battle ensued in which a federal judge finally ruled that the site would remain a parking lot. Last April, the federal government agreed to lease 35 acres at Fort Meade, Md. for housing the homeless, but that project faces intense local opposition.

Current federal officials say they are proceeding with much greater speed than the previous administration, which had to be forced by the courts to move ahead with assessing possible sites. But the entire process is laborious and time-consuming. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department seeks notification from other federal agencies on the sites and determines suitability. Next "suitable" sites are published in the Federal Register. If the site in question is unused or largely unused, the Department of Health and Human Services reviews applications and only then, say federal officials, asks the controlling agency whether the land is really available.

The federal government could streamline its procedures, but the fact of the matter is that surplus federal land will not do much to alleviate homelessness. It was a nice idea, but the need is greatest in big cities like Washington where unused federal land is scarce. Finding shelter for these unhappy people is a moral necessity, but the cheap and simple solutions aren't working.