The District's rejection of Referendum 005 was a propitious beginning for its handling of the homeless situation. In his Nov. 4 Close to Home article, D.C. Council member H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) explained that D.C. Act 8-228, the council's amendment to Initiative 17, "will provide a comprehensive program of social services" to help the homeless help themselves in lieu of "shelter on demand."

That approach is to be applauded. However, the mentally ill, who make up a large part of the homeless population here and across the nation, cannot help themselves. It's time we faced the fact that laws that gave the mentally ill the right to decline medical attention were a mistake. These people have been left unprotected, and their families and the rest of society have no recourse for taking them off the streets.

The tragedy of these deinstitutionalized individuals is that many have almost no resources: their families cannot cope with them, and they are unable to work or function in the community. Even shelters have to turn them away, because they are disruptive and cannot adhere to simple shelter rules.

Many of our homeless are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, with families who wanted to help them but can't, because they were only "sick," not "homicidal" or "suicidal," the prerequisite conditions for commitment to a mental health facility. Our present laws allow no gray area for perhaps a limited commitment for persons who act in a manner dangerous to themselves.

I don't advocate mass institutionalization; I am merely suggesting that we need reasonable laws that allow families along with doctors and the courts to commit loved ones to humane treatment. A few horror stories should not rob us of our senses -- mentally ill persons who can recover with the help of medicine and therapy should be treated. And those who are doomed to their disease deserve the care of those of us who know better.

What is humane about giving a person drooling on his shirt and talking to a park bench the "right" to freeze to death?

Legislation is desperately needed to provide for the specific needs of the mentally ill who will not, and cannot, care for themselves.

-- Ronnie Heller