IT IS TOO cold to argue any more. The war of words over the homeless rages on between people who care but can't agree. But the people in the streets -- whoever they are, whatever their circumstances -- are suffering, and some are dying. Arguments can wait. This is an emergency that requires an immediate response: authorities should round up people in freezing temperatures and take them inside, even if they resist at first.
That is what New York City is doing. Police there are required to determine whether people on the street "have any realistic recourse to protection from the elements." If they don't, patrol officers are empowered -- after conferring with a supervisor -- to take them to a hospital or shelter.
Washington should try this. It isn't a matter of detention, and it doesn't habe a violation of anybody's civil rights. People who are threatening to take their lives in all sorts of other ways are talked and whisked out of danger by authorities. And they are given help -- which is where the arguments about the homeless can focus once the homeless/helpless are rescued.
Right now, nobody even seems to know how many people we're talking about. That, too, can be determined in time, after the rescues are made. When there's a fire in a house and people are in it, the rescuers don't usually stand around debating how many people might be in there, how many might be mentally disturbed enough not to want to get out or where any of the people should be taken if they escape or are willing to be saved.
That's why President Reagan was right to reject a federal plan to evict hundreds of people from the shelter that has been run for better or worse by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. Whatever one may think about the conditions at that place right now, about the fight over renovating it or about the style and stubbornness of Mitch Snyder -- and God knows we have our misgivings -- it's too cold.
Mayor Barry, who has straddled the fence between Mr. Snyder's group and the D.C. coalition for the Homeless, which is operating a shelter in Anacostia, should commit whatever local emerency help is available to assist people and improve temporary facilities. private organizations, too, stand ready to help. But they have been confused, infuriated and stalled by all the uproar. The arguments do need sorting, and important decisions do need to be made. But first things first -- it's cold.