ADVOCATES FOR the city's homeless population have been hard at work gathering signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot. The referendum would resurrect a law requiring the city to provide shelter for anyone and everyone who needed it. Such a law was passed by the city's voters six years ago as Initiative 17. In May, the D.C. Council passed amendments that placed limits on spending for the homeless. City administrators hailed the move as necessary, and Mayor Barry signed the amendments into law. The D.C. government seemed well armed in this struggle for the minds of voters: there have been steady predictions of revenue shortfalls and projected budget deficits, reports that the city will lose a significant share of its residential tax base to the suburbs and reports that the city can't afford to maintain, let alone expand, social services.

The referendum advocates simply don't buy it. "We don't trust them to do the right thing. If they did the right thing, the law wouldn't matter," said Carol Fennelly, one of the referendum's principal supporters.

But the problem with the referendum effort is that it isolates the homeless as the city's predominant social responsibility. It is as if no other pressing social need were worthy of similar consideration. But the city is engaged -- although hardly in the most efficient way -- in an extraordinary array of programs.

Among its other social service responsibilities are: rehabilitating a growing number of juvenile delinquents; rescuing neglected, abused and handicapped children; investigating and training adults who will serve as foster parents or adoptive parents; providing free health care to more than 114,000 city residents who have no medical coverage in a city that has a staggering premature death rate and a growing AIDS population; producing more independent living arrangements and group homes for the mentally retarded and the mentally ill; providing substance-abuse treatment for thousands of addicts and alcoholics; establishing paternity and seeking child support payments from delinquent parents; helping poor single women remain independent by spending millions of dollars on subsidized infant and school-aged child care.

When the city government is forced, by a law, to provide shelter for every homeless person, there is less money for every one of those other terribly needy populations in the city. The D.C. government should be prodded by responsible voters to serve the city's disadvantaged populations on a responsible and discriminating basis, and not to serve one group -- the homeless -- at the price of curtailing services for everyone else.