For better or worse, newspapers reflect the thinking of their times. In the old South, you could not tell from reading the newspapers that black people existed. Not too long ago, no one ever mentioned homosexuality in the papers. Now it is John Doe we do not see.

John Doe is the name I have given a homeless man who froze to death the other night. The Post, probably accurately reflecting community interest, routinely reported his death as a minor part of a weather story. The location of death was given as a downtown park. Noth

There is something wrong with a society that treats the death of a man by freezing as if it were a burst pipe or weather-related traffic tie-up. There is something wrong when death by freezing is so commonplace that ewspaper editors, trained to anticipate questions readers will ask, do not even tell you where the man died, whether anyone saw him, whether the police tried to take him to a shelter, whether the law allows them to . . . Nothing. It is as if death by freezing is an act of God.

But it is an act of man. Everyone knows that a man lying in a public park can die when the temperature drops into the teens and the wind howls. In a city where, it seems, every other person is a cop of some sort, not one of them came across a man dying in a block- square park and took him to a shelter. Dogs, cats and plants were taken in from the cold, but not people. Crazy or sane, they have a constitutional right to freeze to death.

The plight of the homeless is a national scandal -- and disgrace. With all the best intentions, we have opened the doors of Bedlam, our mental institutions, and allowed those who are no danger to themselves or others simply to leave. In some ways, that was a good thing to do. Less and less do you read about the incarceration of people mistakenly diagnosed as crazy. Less and less do investigative reporters bring you horror stories about the warehousing of the insane.

But something has gone terribly wrong. The streets of major cities are now hospital wards. Every day on the way to work I pass a man who sits on the sidewalk, stares into nothingness and begs for money. A block later, I always see another like him, and then perhaps the one many in Washington know as Sky King, a bearded street person who has yet to meet a winter that's his match. This much is sure, though: one is coming.

In Washington, as in other cities, the deinstitutionalization process continues as if the evidence of its failure were not all around us. More and more of the mentally ill will be released from institutions, to be transferred to community homes or to the care of families. On paper that sounds wonderful, but it is only a matter of time until we read about scandals in the community homes and of families unable to cope with mentally ill relatives.

There has to be a way to safeguard the civil liberties of the homeless while, at the same time, safeguarding their very lives. New York Mayor Ed Koch is trying to do just that. He has authorized the police to bring the homeless off the streets when the weather dips below freezing -- by force, if necessary. The policy seems sensible.

A caring society has to distinguish between an aesthetic problem and a real one. The homeless are unsightly, but that is hardly justification for forcible incarceration. But a caring society also has to guard against a hardening of the civic arteries, the growing callousness produced by the sheer numbers of homeless people.

In Washington the other night, a man froze to death in a public park. No one stopped it from happening. No one much cared afterward that it happened. The cause of death was a coincidence. The man lost body heat. We had already lost interest.