WITH THE COMING of freezing temperatures in the past few winters, there has also come a bitter controversy about the people who live on the city's streets during the winter months. Should the city do more to help them? Or are existing shelters enough? If they are enough, then why are some people freezing to death? So far this year nine people have died from exposure to the cold in the District, and if the very low temperatures of the early winter return, more seem doomed. There is no controversy about the need to help people sleeping in the cold if they want to be helped. The argument concerns whether those people want to be helped -- and how many of them there are in the first place.

City officials say there are a few hundred at most. People lobbying to get more spaces opened up say there are not hundreds, but rather thousands of street people and that they are to be found not only on steam grates but also in unlit abandoned buildings and alleys where they go unseen.

But a final indisputable answer to the question of how many is not necessary to reach accord on an unexceptionable sentiment: people should have shelter if they need it. The trouble is there is no straight and simple answer to the question of what to do about people lying in the street like pieces of windblown paper. In seeking a response to the situation, you have to begin with the existing city shelters. There have been reports in this paper and elsewhere of shelter guards' abusing the people who use the shelters. And it may be that the homeless are avoiding the shelters because of the abuse and, thus, unintentionally leading city officials to the erroneous conclusion that there are not enough of these people to justify opening additional shelters. Ensuring that those shelters do not deal out inhumane treatment is a first order of business. t

With hosptiable shelters, the true dimensions of the street people problem may become apparent. On cold nights, currently, reporters have found the city shelters to be filled, while on most other nights the shelters are not near capacity. Are the shelters located so as to be available to all who may need them? At the moment there are no shelters in the Southeast section of the city, the poorest of town. That is obviously inappropriate. In fact, most neighborhoods outside of the center of the city have no shelters. The city government has some abandoned buildings that it could open on cold nights to provide a warm haven for anyone who needs it.Such places need only provide a warm floor to sleep on; anyone needing a bath, a blanket, mental help or anything else should be directed to a city shelter. Opening some of these places around the city and making existing shelters safe are the least that can be done when people are dying from having to sleep in the cold.