The homeless shelter run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence near the Capitol is no paradise. Many of its windows are boarded over, its walls are a bilious green, bugs crawl on its dilapidated furniture, its rooms are littered with the rubble that many clients cart about with them. Yet it is home to some 700 people, who came within an ace of being thrown out in the cold at the hands of federal marshals.

At the 11th hour, Ronald Reagan, vacationing on his balmy California hilltop, canceled the eviction operation that was being enthusiastically mounted by a bureaucrat who was employing the "Rambo" approach to the down and out. Only when Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) a moderate member of the Reagan's party, called the White House and suggested that Yuletide pictures of the homeless being driven out at gunpoint might spoil the president's "nice guy" image did the White House sit up and take notice.

This is a little surprising since the erstwhile chief of staff of the Department of Health and Human Services, C. McClain Haddow, had been sounding like the commanding general of an invasion task force for many weeks. He has been talking about "the specialized training" needed to conquer the bunker that in his imagination the shelter had become. He spoke of the armed and dangerous Vietnam veterans inside -- "What do you do if you get someone in there with a Tommy gun?"

Finally, when his martial fury reached a peak in Christmas week, the White House, in the person of spokesman Albert R. (Rusty) Brashear, stepped in and blew retreat. Haddow would soon be leaving HHS, he announced; no evictions are planned.

Haddow's paramilitary zealotry is thought to be a maddened response to CCNV director Mitch Snyder, who has driven many a bureaucrat close to the edge. An activist of infinite resource and brass, Snyder loves confrontation and is not above blackmail of a certain order. He helped force the secretary of the Navy into a corner when the latter thought to give a nuclear submarine what Snyder thought was an inappropriate name. A later hunger fast got the president to promise to make the wreck at Second and D streets NW into a "model shelter" two days before the end of the 1984 campaign.

To his admirers, Snyder is Robin Hood, unhorsing the mighty to minister to the poor. To his detractors, he is an uncooperative devil who will not work with others just as committed. They know that Snyder insures the cause maximum publicity; he has just signed a contract for a movie about his life. But they think he is a glory-seeker, who, given an inch, takes a mile.

Maybe Haddow thought it was time for the feds to win one against Snyder.

It has turned out differently. Haddow is headed for the door, the CCNV shelter is still open and Snyder is nudging Washington's Mayor Barry to make good on an offer to winterize CCNV -- an initiative that was stifled when Haddow told the mayor it was no good sprucing up a firetrap that was soon to be closed down.

The eviction order was posted on Dec. 12 and sent a chill through the regulars. Four of them drifted off to the new HHS shelter in Anacostia, called the "Anacostia Men's Life Center."

Most, however, refused to go. One of them was a strapping, 32-year-old former auto worker at a New Jersey plant. After being laid off, he said, he tried Delaware, tried Maryland, ended up at the shelter three years ago. He said he contracted pneumonia four times, and that last spring he was stabbed by someone at the entrance of the shelter, whom he believed was among those who hang around hoping to pounce on someone who has received a check in the mail. He rules out the shelter in Anacostia because most jobs are downtown and it takes three bus rides to get from the new shelter to the employment center.

Another person, an intermittent college student, tried the new shelter for four nights after the eviction notice. He finally decided to come "home" to CCNV.

There is a body-count war between the two shelters. Snyder says Anacostia is running full; an HHS spokesman says it has never had more than 427, and that it has a capacity of 600 beds. Snyder says he had 718 in residence.

Snyder thinks Haddow turned out to be a friend because "he so polarized the issue that the White House backed off -- he was willing to take me and the administration and 700 homeless people down in a hail of fire."

The whole episode shows how intractable the homeless issue is and why it makes Americans, from the president on down, feel embarrassed and guilty -- and clueless.