ADVOCATES FOR the homeless are trying to win support for voter Referendum 005, which would restore the city's old right-to-shelter law. But what explains the huge increase in the number of D.C. families seeking shelter since 1985? The advocates often talk of the retrenchment on social and housing programs in the Reagan years. It's time to set the record straight.

Was there a vast reduction in the local public housing stock? The answer is no. Was it suddenly easier to evict tenants? No. The District has one of the strongest tenants' rights laws in the nation. Was there a systematic increase in rents? Again, no. In 1985, the city's rent control law was extended and strengthened, and measures that would have eased it were overturned. The D.C. government also launched new housing efforts, including a rent subsidy program for poor residents.

You can't blame an increase in the number of needy families, because the numbers tell a different story: D.C. residents on Medicaid, down from 122,806 in 1984 to 112,614 in 1989; D.C. residents on welfare, down from 87,945 in 1984 to 81,905 in 1989; D.C. residents on food stamps, down from 92,103 in 1984 to 85,057 in 1989.

Also, more D.C. residents gained jobs during this period. Black unemployment in D.C. fell from 16 percent in the early 1980s to just 6.7 percent in 1988. Among black teenagers, the rate fell from more than 52 percent to 22.6 percent, 10 points below the national rate.

What's one thing that did change? The 1984 come-one, come-all voter initiative (which advocates for the homeless want restored to its loosely written, open-ended form) requiring the city to give shelter to every homeless person regardless of the cost or circumstances. From 1985, when the law went into effect, to 1986, the number of families sheltered by the D.C. government rose from just 39 to 285 and continued to soar. Can it possibly be that this law encouraged families to depend on the D.C. government for shelter?

When the D.C. Council amended the shelter law to place limits on spending for the homeless (a move supported by all but one of its members and by both the Republican and Democratic candidates for mayor), it was not a throw-them-back-onto-the-streets vote. The changes place limits on shelter stays but allow those limits to be extended on a case-by-case basis. Even the spending limits could be breached if the city were suffering through a harsh winter. The law should remain as it now stands, and city residents should vote against Referendum 005.