The Post's editorial urging readers to vote "no" on Referendum 005 was inaccurate, unfeeling and betrayed a misunderstanding of the causes of homelessness. The main reason why families are homeless in the District is because they can't afford to pay the rent, not because we have a right to shelter.

No one disputes the fact that the number of homeless families with children in the District is growing dramatically. But cities across the country have reported similar increases whether or not they have a right to shelter. The U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1987 found that 96 percent of cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of homeless families. According to the conference, Washington reported an increase of 40 percent, while Charleston, S.C., Providence, R.I., and Los Angeles reported increases ranging from 40 percent to 144 percent. None of these cities had a right to shelter.

The Post describes Initiative 17 as the "1984 come-one, come-all voter initiative" implying that our right to shelter has attracted homeless families to Washington. Nothing could be further from the truth; there are more than enough poor families in Washington to account for the increase. Every day, there are 60 names on the U.S. Marshal's eviction list despite "one of the strongest tenants' rights laws in the nation."

The real reason that we have more homeless families in Washington is because more families are not able to afford the high cost of housing in the District. Families working in low wage jobs or receiving public benefits haven't been able to keep up with escalating housing costs due to reductions in the value of real wages and income support benefits. Using HUD figures, for example, a family would have to earn $12.88 an hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. For families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the maximum grant increased only 25.1 percent between 1985 and 1990 while the cost of an average two-bedroom apartment increased 58 percent. The average payment to AFDC families in 1989 was $356 -- just 53.1 percent of the cost of renting a decent two-bedroom unit.

The implication that District families have become homeless in order to enjoy the privilege of sleeping in a rat-infested hellhole like the Capital City Inn or the Pitts Hotel is insulting to struggling homeless women and children.

The practical effect, if Referendum 005 fails, will be women and children living on our streets, in cars and in abandoned buildings. Quibbling over whether one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world can afford to provide its children with such a basic need as shelter from the elements is tantamount to moral bankruptcy.

CUSHING N. DOLBEARE Executive Director National Coalition for the Homeless SUSANNE SINCLAIR-SMITH Director Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Washington