"God's in the Everglades. I saw Him," Carl gasped, lifting his voice above a din of sobbing women outside our dormitory room at the Center, "He's 15 feet tall and has red eyes that shoot fire. Please don't tell Him you saw me."

Carl strayed into Bethesda the same February evening I wandered into town as a homeless derelict. He was 18, a mentally troubled patient from Springfield State Hospital. He was a lost soul whose path eventually and inevitably met mine at the Bethesda Community Crisis Center, an all-purpose receptable for Montgomery County's wounded and dispossessed.

The Center, tucked away in a hidden pocket of small businesses off Old Georgetown Road, was a clinical retreat for assaulted women, bruised housewives and abused children. It was also a makeshift observation ward for forgotten outpatients such as Carl -- for whom caseworkers were scrambling to locate an adult psychiatric home -- and an overnight rest stop for bums coming in from the cold.

"Usually we just send you guys down to the District, but it's kinda late now," grumbled the county cop who directed me. "Let's see . . . Why not the Center? Yeah, we'll send you on over to the Center. All kinds of folks over there."

The Center was a sanitarium patching up the emotional disruptions and suffering normally hidden behind Montgomery's affluent exterior. It was a place where the county's anguish, rage and sorrow was vented. All night, that February night, battered wives sobbed and hot lines rang.

When I entered the clinic's anteroon, Carl, a brown-bearded young man with sad eyes, was murmuring at a photograph in Vogue Magazine, which was stacked on top of a neat pile of Psychology Today. Better Homes and Gardens and American Film. In one corner of the room, beneath lush hanging plants, an earnest social worker counseled a young woman caressing a red bruise on her eye. A tall man in a plaid overcoat looked on silently.

This caseworker led the young woman to the second floor, where all the children and beaten women spent the night, and then returned downstairs to counsel me. Counseling in this case consisted of an off-and-on 60-minute pyschological examination which, according to the social worker, was required before I could be allowed to sleep at The Center.

"All I want is a bed," I protested. "I'll leave at dawn."

"I know, I know," she said. "But we must ask you a few questions."

First one, then two, then three social workers and psychologists took turns squaring off with me, face to face in hardback chairs, probing my mind in a comfortable interview room. All of their questions were the same.

Where are you going? Why are you here? How old are you? Where were you born? Have you ever been before a psychologist before? Do you drink, use drugs? Where have you lived? Where are your relatives? Did you go to school?Where? When? Why are you wandering?

"You say the police told you to come here huh?" groused one woman, with short brown hair. She then turned to another counselor in the hallway and scoffed in a low voice. "Why do they send 'em here? He could've stayed in jail. Why not? Who do they think we are, anyway?"

I answered their questions truthfully, although with a minimum of detail, and when I told the last psychologist about my education in college and graduate college, she signed in apparent exasperation or disbelief -- I couldn't tell which -- and said, finally, "All right, all right, you can stay here for the night."

The Center was at once the best and worst of all the Washington, Baltimore and suburban shelters I stayed in during this assignment. A social worker gave me a voucher good for a $3 meal at a nearby Tastee Diner, where I purchased a filing but foul-tasting steak sandwich that was cooked on a fish grill. When I returned I was outfitted with toothpaste, soap, towels, deodorant, washcloths and clean blankets and sheets. My room had wall-to-wall carpeting, air wick deodorizer bunk beds and, as a roommate, Carl.

The room was snug and warm, but still it was no place for sleeping. Broken women howled upstairs throughout the night. Children screamed. Social workers and therapists scampered through the corridors easing their grief, then returned to answer hot line phones, where depressed insomniacs waited on hold.

I listened to Carl describe the pain of being Jesus, and overheard these murmurings in the halls outside.

"Do you have any friends who you trust? Do you have someone who will listen to you? Who's your best friend, we'll call her."

"He beat me with his fist! Oh God, Oh God . . ."

"It's all right. It's all right now. You can stay here. Then, there . . ."

"He came home . . . . I didn't do anything . . . Then he slapped me . . . Then . . ."

"Look, we'll go to another room. Please, let's go to another room. You need a bandage. You can't just sit in the hall like this."

"Oh God . . . I can't go home . . . Oh God, Oh God."

"Mrs. Patterson, we can find temporary housing for you and the two young sons, if you want. Mrs. Patterson?"

"Uh, uh."

"Mrs. Patterson what are you going to do? Do you have other relatives in town to stay with?"

Sobbing.

"Mrs. Patterson, it helps if you talk about it. Really. Let it out, please."

"It's . . . not . . . right," sobbing.

"Mrs. Patterson, you've got to think about the children, too. Do you really want to go back, after this, I mean?"

"Where else can I go?" shouting, fist pounding, sobbing. "I . . . live there."

Children. Frantic footsteps. Tears. "Mommy . . . Mommy!"

Doors opening, slamming. Feet scurring up the staircase, then down again.

"Momeeeeeeeeeee!"

Door opens.

"She's here, everthing's all right. Look, she's in here . . . No, let your mommy rest a minute okay? Let her rest. Want some cookies? Let's go back upstairs okay?"

Another voice.

"It's all right. Come on, Dorie. Come sit on mommy's lap."

When I returned from the diner that long night in Bethesda, I found Carl in the room we were sharing, rummaging through a pile of woman's clothing and costume jewelry left behind by a previous tenant. He placed orange and yellow baubles and strings of plastic beads around his neck, delighted by his discovery.

"Whoever was staying here sure was rich, huh? Think I can sell this? No, I think I'd better keep it," he said, placing the jewelry in the bottom of his leather boot.

Carl was released from Springfield Hospital on his 18th birthday, the day before when he became too old to remain confined there. All I knew about him, though, was what he and a social worker told me.

"Carl's a little strange," said the social worker in an aside, "but he's a good kid, really. You don't mind staying with him, do you? He'll be here only until they find something better for him."

He called himself Jesus and pleaded that I not tell anyone about it. "No one believes me, no one believes me," he moaned late that night."Except Him. He's after me, you know. He goes back and forth, back and forth, between North Carolina and Florida looking for me."

The night before Carl said he slept in a row of bushes near the Chevy Chase Country Club. He boasted about the bravado and derring-do in his past, how he hid a bushel of marijuana in a Mexican desert and would return one day to retrieve it, and how he leaped from a 10-story Rockville warehouse one night, hit the concrete and scampered away like a cat.

And he told stories about Springfield, while emptying a spray can of Right Guard into his pillow.

"I was the only one who stood up to Sam," he said. "Sam, he's the one who threw that garbage can through the window next to the television room, remember? Sam punched me in the stomach, but I didn't flinch. I told him Father was angry and was going to burn him."

Insistent on proving his courage, Carl stripped naked and pointed at various scars, tatoos, bruises and sores on his body. "This is from that day I kicked that lamp post," he said proudly. "Here's when I got cut climbing a fence."

The ugliest was a deep purple bruise on his hip, which Carl said he suffered the previous day after running purposefully into a parked car on Wisconsin Avenue. The pain was so excruciating Carl cried out whenever he rolled over in the upper bunk bed later that night. Finally we went next door to the hot line room where three workers were manning telephones, and asked if there was a doctor available. A woman ordered us out of the room, then told us in the hallway that The Center didn't have a medical physician, and suggested we call Suburban Hospital to arrange an X-ray.

"You can call, can't you?" she asked me. "We're really busy here."

Carl returned from the hospital later that night exuberant, proclaiming the X-ray negative.

"My bones don't break," he said. "I shoulda told you that."

I arrived in Northeast Washington at Blair School, a public shelter for the homeless, just as a line of 80 cold and hungry men reached the end of a long brick facade. A light snow fell in the twilight. We had an hour to kill before the abandoned school opened its doors to us for the night.

A stocky security guard stood over us, pounding a nightstick into his chubby palm. One old man passed out, falling head first on to the frozen pavement. Then another man, a troubled man stroking a scraggly white goatee, stumbled through an opening in the cyclone fence, lurched past the rusty monkey bars in the playground and made his way over shards of broken liquor bottles to the line.

One hand clutched a fifth of wine. The other was clutching something deep in his overcoat pocket. Tonight, he said to all of us, he was going to use his .32.