THE COMMUNITY for Creative Non-Violence couldn't have found a more dramatic gimmick to draw attention to the plight of homeless people than using the National Visitor Center at Union Station as a shelter for them. After all, there are hundreds of people in this city who somehow survive by sleeping on sidewalk hot-air vents and rummaging in trash cans for food. Many of them are in poor health; some are chronic alcoholics, others are emotionally disturbed. There's no question that these people are in desperate need of help.

CCNV members, plucking on the heartstrings of the Department of the Interior, pressured officials there into allowing the visitor's center to be used as a shelter -- at least temporarily. The group pointed out that several homeless people died on the streets last winter and that those deaths might have been prevented if a shelter had been available. Interior officials hesitantly agreed, understandably unwilling to be accused of neglecting the needy.

For more than a week, CCNV volunteers have been allowed to provide hot food and blankets to the 50 to 100 people who come to the visitor's center at night. But Interior is unhappy with that arrangement; the visitor's center is becoming dirty and foul-smelling, and fistfights occur frequently. What's more, according to the city's Department of Human Resources, there are already several shelters for the homeless -- but they are often only half-filled. CCNV spokesmen argue that the beds are empty because the city imposes too many rules; rather than give officials their names and submit to inspections for weapons, drugs and alcohol, the homeless would prefer to sleep on the streets. CCNV representatives declare that, unless such rules are abolished, the visitor's center will continue to be used -- no matter what.

In setting themselves up for a fight with federal and local officials, the CCNV is ignoring the battle to improve the lives of the homeless. It should offer to work with DHR to find some reasonable procedures for checking into city shelters, recognizing the need for health and safety measures -- and then encourage the homeless to use them. Or, the group might contract its services to the city and show, by example, how best to help the homeless. There's no doubt that the National Visitor Center is totally inappropriate as a shelter. Unless the committee realizes it, the homeless will doubtless soon be back on the streets -- and without help.