Down corridors of punched-out walls, Whistler walks ritualistically every night, whistling. The aged man's shoeless feet, shy four toes he lost to frostbite, chafe steadily against the linoleum floor. He wears a blanket around his torso like a Caesar of the streets.

"He and his family had a discrepancy," explained one resident of the homeless shelter at 425 Second St. NW.

"Whistler, don't nobody know his name," said another. "I talked to him once. He said his family got their own lives and he doesn't want to intervene."

In this place some call "hotel of last resort," the guests don't bother to register. The shelter, owned by the federal government and operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence, is a sanctuary for women and men like Whistler who have shaken loose from society.

Some of them are mentally disturbed, some chronically unemployed for other reasons, some transients by choice. All of them are pawns in a complex game played by powerful officials in the federal and District governments, the U.S. courts and the U.S. Capitol.

Tomorrow a new shelter is scheduled to open in Anacostia and the residents of the CCNV shelter at Second Street likely will be thrust into the final stage of a conflict that has been edging for months toward a confrontation.

CCNV leader Mitch Snyder has warned repeatedly that some residents of the Second Street shelter will physically resist the federal government's plan to close that facility in favor of the Anacostia shelter. Officials of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, expressing concern about allegations that weapons and explosives are being kept in the building, insist they will shut down the CCNV shelter a week to two months after the Anacostia unit opens.

The Second Street shelter has been fortified since late August against a federal takeover, but HHS officials say they may simply turn off the utilities and wait out any resistance. Many of the homeless people in the shelter, already habituated to eviction, apppear unwilling to engage the federal government, according to interviews conducted Monday night.

"Ain't nobody going to fight it out with no feds," said 27-year-old Vaughn Banks, while Monday Night Football droned on a black-and-white TV in the hall outside his room. "They don't want to go to jail."

The stalemate that has enveloped the shelter residents began in June when federal officials and Snyder fell to bickering over HHS plans for the renovation of the Second Street shelter. Snyder, a longtime advocate for the homeless and a master of brinksmanship, said the plan didn't live up to President Reagan's 1984 election-eve promise to create a "model physical shelter."

The government replied that CCNV's own plans for the shelter renovation, drawn up after Snyder's widely publicized 51-day fast a year ago elicited the Reagan pledge, went far beyond the agreed-upon particulars of the bedside compact between the hunger striker and the president's deputies.

HHS officials, concluding they could not work with Snyder's group, announced plans to close the federally owned Second Street shelter and give $3.7 million to another local homeless advocacy group, the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, to run a short-term substitute shelter in Anacostia and develop long-range plans for the city's homeless.

At 8 p.m. Monday the doors of the shelter swung open, just as they do every night at this time, to admit the first of 573 men and 80 women counted by CCNV staff.

Across the highway overpass to the west, street lights reflected in the glass of the modern U.S. Tax Court building at 400 Second St. NW. A block to the east limousines and taxis were pulling up to the plush Hyatt Regency hotel on New Jersey Avenue.

The nondescript three-story shelter squatted anonymously between them, its front door fortified with bars. Large steel plates had been placed against the foyer wall by CCNV workers for extra armor, presumably as defense against a feared assault.

In the basement, an unused area where rats rule, steel lockers were piled together to prevent access through basement-level entrances. On the first and second floors, the side entryways had been secured with chains and padlocks. Sprinkler pipes overhead promised protection against fire in a closed system.

"We're not going to just give up the building," Snyder explained.

Most of the men proceeded directly to rooms located along first- and second-floor corridors. Women enter through a separate entrance and are segregated from the men. The rooms are of different sizes: small chambers with one or two beds and large, dormitory-style rooms filled with cots.

Sterling (J.R.) Dorsey was sitting on the edge of his bed, a faint fluorescent bulb casting a sickly light on institutional green walls and makeshift furniture of the small room he shares with another man. Dorsey, 36, an ex-convict who has lived in the shelter off and on for almost two years, earns an unsteady living working on eviction crews run by U.S. marshals.

"I don't like it," Dorsey said. "I'm making people homeless like I am. But it's a job. To me, it's survival."

Dorsey and several other shelter residents interviewed gave no indication they would help to defend the Second Street shelter if federal officials move to close it. Most of the men are too beaten down to mount organized resistance, Dorsey said.

"A lot of the men are going to give up," he said. "They've been rousted about by the public too much."

In the first-floor first aid station, an elderly man named Collin Brown was mumbling a protest to Reginald (Doc) Brannan, 40, a resident of the streets until he joined the shelter staff a year ago.

Brannan explained that Brown, who had spent years at the St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington, was expressing a fear he would have to return there.

Shoeless and nearly incoherent, Brown is like a lot of residents of the shelter who had spent time at the mental hospital and then were discharged to the streets, Brannan said.

Older men like Brown and Whistler will be hurt most by the closing of the shelter, according to Dorsey. He said they won't want to leave the familiar area around the shelter for unknown environs of Anacostia.

"Some of the older men can hardly walk," he said. "If the shelter closes, you're going to see men put outside, freezing or burning up in empty houses."

Dorsey and Banks, who is unemployed and who said he came to the shelter eight months ago after "my girl and I had a spat," indicated that younger men, too, would resist moving from a neighborhood that has become their base of operations.

"The difference between Anacostia and here is that here all you have to do is go around the corner to the [D.C. Department of] Human Resources building to take care of your food stamps and Social Security," Banks said, while relaxing in a small room he shares with 43-year-old Charles (Dad) Weems. "A lot of the churches around here give away clothes and food. They don't do it like that in Anacostia."

Banks listed other nearby places where residents can see their probation officer, attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and pick up odd jobs. The daily concerns of Banks and others like him, however, appear to be out of sync with the clash taking place in the halls of government.

Snyder and CCNV view the fight over the shelter as a critical element in a campaign to force the federal government to commit more funds to homeless shelters. A success here, Snyder said, would set the stage for "replication" around the country, with an ultimate goal of establishing federally supported, large central shelters and smaller satellite shelters throughout the country.

HHS, in response, has repeatedly asserted that homelessness is a local problem that should be handled primarily by local governments. In a recent congressional hearing on homelessness called by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), HHS chief of staff C. McClain Haddow warned that the government has no intention of "federalizing" the homeless problem.

The Second Street shelter, for both sides, has become the ultimate test. Mayor Marion Barry's unwillingness for the city to assume responsibility for the shelter and relieve the federal government of the burden has been crucial to the CCNV strategy.

"It forces the federal government to deal directly with us," Snyder said.

Haddow said yesterday that HHS officials interpret Snyder's challenge as an invitation to a "bloody confrontation" that federal officials want no part of. He said the government expects CCNV to "bunker in" at the shelter with a small coterie of supporters intent on preventing the shutdown at Second Street.

Snyder, who denies the allegations that his group is keeping weapons and explosives at the shelter, said CCNV intends to face down its adversary but he keeps details of his plan to himself.

Daryl Cohen, 25, the son of a Foreign Service officer, spent Monday night at the shelter because, he said, "I wanted to see what it was like to sleep and be here." In the eyes of Cohen, Snyder is a hero and a model who has made great personal sacrifices for the down and out.

In the eyes of many of the down and out, however, Snyder is a mortal who runs a shelter the government plans to close.

"If the doors are locked," said one young man with a wispy mustache and bloody nose, "then nobody's going to be here."