A Washington Post headline several months ago declared, "18 Million Homeless Seen by 2003," a situation expected to be caused by a growing number of poor people and a decreasing amount of affordable housing.

The story cited a study, conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Phillip L. Clay, predicting that the number of poor households will increase 44.5 percent, from 11.9 million to 17.2 million, between 1983 and 2003. According to Clay's statistics, low-rent housing will fall from 12.9 million to 9.4 million units during the same period.

Living in the go-go real estate climate of the Washington area, where quite modest dwellings routinely sell in the six-figure range and $20 lunches are taken for granted, it's easy to forget that, nationally, a significant portion of the population cannot participate at all in the conventional housing market.

Worse still, there may be hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions some day, for whom "participating in the housing market" is no longer the issue. Their concern is just surviving, keeping safe, warm and dry in some minimal shelter. Many may not even appear in statistics.

In an attempt to heighten public awareness of the plight of the homeless and near homeless, the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Architecture Students and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp. have just sponsored a series of nationwide workshops whose operative theme was "the search for shelter."

In dozens of cities across the country, teams of architects, architecture students, educators, community groups, government officials and housing providers got together to identify local shelter needs, select sites, develop programs and generate design solutions for constructing or renovating basic shelter facilities. Proposals made during this initial phase will later be refined and implemented if financing is found.

Graduate architecture students at the University of Maryland, along with several practicing architects (the faculty acted primarily as observers), investigated several such project opportunities in Baltimore. Although much of the effort focused on design, in many ways the most fascinating aspect of the workshop experience was entering temporarily the invisible, easily ignored worlds of the homeless.

Our weeklong "search for shelter" revealed what statistics and headlines don't show. We learned, for example, that there are many types of homelessness, that not all homeless people are merely deinstitutionalized mental patients or victims of alcohol or drug abuse.

Single, older, male transients still represent a substantial share of the homeless, along with prematurely released male and female mental patients. The number of individuals and families evicted from their homes, usually for economic reasons -- loss of job, rising rents -- is growing. Many have steady employment histories; some are still working but cannot afford housing.

Other homeless include runaway youths, battered women, illegal immigrants, disaster victims and physically disabled persons. Some were pushed into the streets by divorce or loss of government benefits. Many have worked and can work.

Yet no matter how diverse their individual circumstances, what the homeless have in common is the street and the status of becoming the nation's "untouchables." For whatever reasons, they are in a "survival mode" -- not just economic survival, like the working poor, but physical, instinctual survival.

We also learned that three levels of shelter strategy exist, "a basic continuum of services ... to take the homeless off the streets, provide counseling and support services, and secure them in productive roles with permanent housing."

The first level is the emergency or crisis shelter that offers short terms of stay -- a few days or weeks at most -- with beds, baths, meals, limited medical attention and minimal recreational diversions (such as television) in a relatively hygienic and secure environment. Occupants sleep in barracks-style spaces with a few personal possessions.

Most emergency shelters are located in problem neighborhoods and are run by churches or charitable agencies. Shelters serve either men or women, but not both; at this level of survival the sexes don't mix well.

The second level in the continuum is transitional housing, akin to halfway housing for mental patients. This is for "post-crisis" clients, especially families, who are ready to engage in serious self-help and reeducation efforts.

These semi-independent housing facilities consist of small apartments that can accommodate one or two adults, plus children; family reunification is often one of the principal social objectives. Beyond meeting basic shelter needs, transitional housing projects also offer on-site counseling, job training and training in social skills.

One of our Baltimore projects calls for converting a 1950s elementary school into transitional housing. Community services -- a day care center, laundromat, health clinic, fast food outlet, community meeting spaces -- also have been proposed. Thus the project will both shelter homeless families and serve the neighborhood, helping occupants reestablish contact with the world.

In transitional housing, the terms of stay range from three months to a year, and occupants must sign a contract not only defining terms of tenancy, but also prescribing mandatory participation in counseling and training programs.

After fulfilling their contract obligations, transitional housing clients are then expected to move on to the third level in the rehabilitation and re-entry process, permanent housing (though not necessarily market-rate housing). They become long-term, independent residents, but with continuing economic assistance and counseling from communitywide sources. If all goes well, they eventually become "market participants" and tax-paying citizens.

Throughout the past week, I experienced a kind of deja vu about this project. It recalled the socially conscious agenda that preoccupied so many architects, and much of the public, during the 1960s, an agenda that was largely abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s when designers tended to pursue architecture more as a visual art than a social art. Yet the shelter problem continues and may be worse than ever before. More and more people live below the poverty line. Affordable housing becomes ever scarcer, and much of what was affordable in the 1960s actually has been eliminated by urban renewal, condominium conversion, gentrification, abandonment or arson -- not to mention that relatively little new low-income housing has been built in the last decade.

As interesting as designing shelters for the homeless may be, these exercises are likely to remain symbolic gestures. What really needs redesigning are some of our national priorities and policies.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.