The District, struggling with an unexpected influx of families asking for emergency housing, was forced this week for the first time to convert a school gymnasium into shelter for more than 30 families.

For the last three nights, cots have been set up on the gym floor at Banneker High School for the families who were eligible for shelter under the District's right-to-shelter law. The increased number of families, some of whom are from out of town, have overwhelmed the existing system of hotel rooms and transitional housing.

On Tuesday night, the sun had long since set at Banneker, but the playground buzzed like a shadowy hive as more than 40 children swarmed the swings, crowded onto the jungle-gym and played tag in the schoolyard.

They and their parents were waiting on the dark playground for the school's gymnasium to be transformed into a bedroom for 85 adults and children. The parents, weary from the wait for a place to sleep, cradled sleeping infants or guarded shopping bags crammed with children's clothing and toys.

Most were black and from Washington. There was also an Iranian native and his family, a Romanian man and his young daughter, and a few who had recently arrived from New York, New Jersey and the Carolinas.

"The city is practicing child abuse," said Cirrus, an unemployed cabdriver who asked that only his first name be used. "It is after 10 p.m. and these children need to be asleep."

Cirrus had spent the evening at the city-run shelter at the Pitts Motor Hotel waiting to be assigned a room for the night. Other families had been driven to the school at 800 Euclid St. NW in a city-owned bus and then brought back to the Pitts before being returned once again to the school.

Ricardo Lyles, director of the city's shelter agency, said 34 families spent the night at the gymnasium Tuesday night and 38 families on Monday night. Officials also planned to use the gymnasium last night.

The city is now housing 420 families in hotels, transitional shelters and the gymnasium, said Lyles. Most of the families seeking shelter were coming from private homes or public housing where they had doubled up with friends and family and not as a result of an escalation of evictions, Lyles said.

At Banneker, Cirrus's wife Patricia, who is expecting their third child in three weeks, sat on the ground and tried to comfort her 4-year-old son Syavasl, who broke his elbow in a fall the night before as the family waited for a room at the Pitts Hotel. His injury kept him from playing with the other children. Her 3-year-old daughter Samantha clung to her shirt.

Cirrus, who said he has been unable to work since he lost his driver's license three months ago, said the family was evicted from their Northeast home when they fell behind in the rent. Last week they left an apartment the city found for them on upper 13th Street NW, they said, because of drug trafficking in the area.

"We spent most of {Monday night} at Howard University Hospital," Patricia said. The family eventually walked to the Father McKenna Center, a church-run, drop-in center for homeless people at 19 I St. NW that has unexpectedly become an overnight emergency shelter for families. "We have never housed families before," said Brian Carome, assistant director of the center. "But we found that the Pitts was turning families away in the middle of the night, so we helped out."

Tuesday night, Carome stood in front of the Pitts Hotel at 1451 Belmont St. NW to make sure that everyone had a place to stay that night. Monday night, "there were 50 children out here in the parking lot, most of them under 5," he said. "It was the most awful thing I have ever seen."

The McKenna Center, the National Coalition for the Homeless and two homeless women filed suit against the District Monday, alleging that homeless families were being turned away from the city's normal emergency shelters and requesting the court to provide shelter. The court has yet to rule on the suit.

Eric Easter, spokesman for the city's shelter program, said yesterday the influx of families needing help on Monday surprised the agency. He said the agency was unable to rent rooms at local hotels because few will take their clients and those who would were full.

Evelyn McCrary was at Banneker with her husband and three teen-age daughters because of a fire in her Southeast apartment a week ago. "I got burnt out," she said. "The Red Cross put us up as long as they could and on Monday I went to the Pitts for help. We ended up here at 2 a.m." McCrary said each family member was given a cot with clean sheets, a blanket, pillow, face cloth, soap and deodorant. "They made us as comfortable as they could," she said. "Each family pulled their cots together and slept in little groups."

Although McCrary said she was grateful for a place for her family to sleep, she was particularly thankful to a minister who had arranged for her to get some new clothes to wear to work. "I work at the Peoples Drug Store as a clerk and I haven't been back since the fire," she said. "The minister got those clothes for me and that means I can go to work tomorrow."

As to complaints about using the gymnasium to house families, McCrary had little patience for the critics. "This place isn't so bad," she said. "A lot of those people complaining got themselves evicted for not paying the rent. It is not all the city's fault. People have to be responsible too."