WHEN THE LAST homeless family moved out of the Pitts Motor Hotel a week ago, the doors closed on more than just another phase in the District's difficult struggle to provide shelter for the homeless. The closing also brings an end, temporarily at least, to a landmark establishment off the 14th Street corridor that had enjoyed better days, at least before the 1968 riots. At that time, the motel operated as a "tourist home" with attached restaurant and nightclub, attracting a steady and loyal clientele, including jazz buffs, local notables and travelers with D.C. license tags. During the Poor People's Campaign -- while hundreds sloshed around in the mud in "Resurrection City" on the Mall -- "Pitts" served as home for the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and several of the campaign's leaders.

For the past 25 years, the Pitts Motel has been a key part of the D.C. government's shelter program. It first provided rooms for single adults and childless couples in 1965. As the number of homeless families grew through the '80s by 400 percent, the entire 50-room motel served as a shelter. Reportedly $17 million in public funds was spent on the operation -- $3.5 million this year alone. From the city auditor, the D.C. Council and Capitol Hill have come searing criticisms of the shelter program's costs and the city's contracts with shelter vendors like Pitts owner Cornelius Pitts. Homeless families, including some perpetrators but mostly victims, could supply their own criticism of the vandalism and squalor that plagued the place. So could Belmont Street neighbors who for years were on the receiving end of the loitering, public urinating, trash, noise and wails from police and ambulance sirens responding to the motel's miseries.

The homeless problem doesn't end with closing the motel and packing off families to public housing or rent-subsidized homes. Pitts in a sense is a metaphor for this city's desperate homeless situation. The D.C. Department of Human Services, an easy target for cheap shots, is burdened with the task of meeting the requirements of an inflexible Initiative 17: it mandates the city to supply overnight shelter on demand but provides no authority to cap expenditures, establish eligibility criteria or set limits on shelter stay. District taxpayers, who are paying the bill, have it in their hands to begin making real corrections in the fall elections by getting rid of Initiative 17 and electing leaders with better ideas on how to reform the shelter system.