On the day Judge Charles Richey agreed to, if not mandated, the relocation of those in the 2nd and D Street shelter, I took a few minutes to revisit the controversial facility. It's a grim sight. This building, which the judge has agreed is unfit for human habitation, is nevertheless filled with people unable to survive on their own.

The 2nd and D shelter is large, but not quite so chaotic as reported. It is somewhat unkept, but not that much different from any number of other shelters in the city. It's tough work these volunteers do. There must be a better way of caring for people, but until someone comes up with it, it's hard to criticize.

The very existence of such a facility reveals the failure of society's responsibility to care for its weakest members. By choice, or default, to place those least able to care for themselves in makeshift quarters, staffed by untrained, overworked volunteers is a moral problem more than a simple housing issue.

Those who congregate in city shelters are casualties of a struggle for survival that more and more of them are losing. Many are there for lack of a better solution to their mental health needs. The widespread presence of untreated mental illness among them would indicate that we're losing that battle.

The shelters house an alarming number of America's war veterans, casualties, many of them, of Vietnam whose names will never appear on a memorial. A growing number are young people, not stereotypical "skid row" derelicts. They are casualties of another war being fought on our city streets, a war they've lost to drugs and alcohol. And it's not just men who live on the streets now. Shelters for women are overcrowded too. These all wander about the city, urban nomads, tolerably homeless because they pose no threat to themselves or others.

It's a pathetic collection of outcasts when thrown together into shelters, usually the least desirable buildings the city can offer: old schools and worn-out hotels waiting to be razed. A synergism of despair sets in.

We're not supposed to have such casualties in our advanced, affluent society, but we do. We have the ability to provide appropriate institutions to care for the weakest among us, yet we don't. The contrast grows more intolerable. In the richest of nations, close to the center of the wealth and power of Western civilization, men and women live in conditions that compare to those in a Dickens novel.

Judge Richey is frustrated with local and federal agencies that, after years of studying the problem, still have no comprehensive plan to care for street people. A cluster of underfinanced and uncoordinated charitable groups are providing our most creative response to homelessness but are no match for the need. The D.C. government is overtaxed as people flee the affluent suburbs where they are unwelcome and uncared for.

In the midst of Washington's summer heat one can feel the chilling cold of winter.