HOWEVER STRONGLY this city's residents may feel about their local government's responsibilities toward the homeless, Washington has a vague, misleading, legally loose and financially unwise law on its books. It's the work not of the government, but of a majority of the voters in November 1984, who approved an initiative guaranteeing "adequate overnight shelter" for homeless people. The language is an open invitation to people of any means to demand government shelter as a right -- for what could be the rest of their lives. It even says that if you live in the District -- and it's unclear for how long -- and you have an "accommodation" but are "unable to secure entry to that accommodation" or if "occupation of the accommodation would likely lead to violence from another occupant," you qualify for all that the government must provide. Yet because of the initiative process this voters' wish is the mayor's command -- according to the latest court decision.

An earlier decision, by Superior Court Judge Annice M. Wagner last July, struck down the initiative because it assumes "the power to appropriate funds, a power not conferred by the electorate." But on Tuesday, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel reversed Judge Wagner's ruling, saying there is "no legislative intent to exclude this type of initiative from the initiative process per se." Mayor Barry says he plans to appeal the decision to the full Court of Appeals -- and he should. To let this blank-check proposal go without exhausting the appeals process might be popular, but it would be financially irresponsible. Even if Council Chairman David Clarke and other candidates for reelection appear reluctant to note the initiative's serious deficiencies and its great potential expense, Mr. Barry has an obligation to protect the government from busting its own treasury.

In the meantime, though, city hall shouldn't use the appeals process as an excuse for its failure to step in and cope with the dilemma of the homeless. On the contrary, Mr. Barry should take over the mission, mediate between rival groups offering shelter and improve the connection between the homeless and the city's provisions for the mentally ill, for jobs programs and for any other assistance in moving people from dependence to self-sufficiency.