IN WASHINGTON, the year 1984 turned out to be a time in which there was overwhelming public sympathy for the homeless and a keen sense that the local government had to be forced to address their needs, regardless of cost. This was manifested in the landslide vote that transformed ballot Initiative 17 into a law requiring the District government to provide overnight shelter for everyone who needed it. By 1990, the city's fiscal fortunes had greatly soured, the shelter law had become the treasury-busting entitlement program that opponents had always feared, and the D.C. Council amended it to place limits on spending for the homeless

Now advocates for the homeless are seeking to restore the law to its original, loose and open-ended form by trying to place Referendum 005 on the November ballot. But the right-to-shelter law was a poor solution then and remains so now.

First, the D.C. government hardly has unlimited spending capability. It faces a large projected budget deficit, and the future, in terms of revenues, is bleak. Like many other large cities, it faces a situation in which it cannot produce the breadth of social service funding that is commensurate with all needs.

Also, the homeless are hardly the District's sole severely disadvantaged population. There are too many addicts, and not enough treatment opportunities; too many neglected and abused children, and too few social workers to rescue them; too many sick people, and too little money to fully staff and stock health clinics. Hundreds of mentally retarded and mentally ill residents require supervised living arrangements, and there is too little local funding to meet the whole need.

It is certainly true that the District government has had a poor record in serving its needy populations, including the homeless, and that its programs have been grossly inefficient over the years. That is why advocates for several such groups have successfully sought court-ordered improvements on behalf of their clients. But should the homeless be placed at the head of the government funding list to the detriment of all other disadvantaged and disabled people in this city? The answer is no.

Voters do have an obligation here, but it is not to sign petitions to place Referendum 005 on the November ballot or to vote for it. As in 1984, that obligation is to study the records and credentials of candidates and to elect a government that will manage to serve as many of the needy -- of all groups -- as can be done in a fiscally responsible way.