Conventioneers trying to figure out what to do about the homeless didn't have to walk far from their luxury hotel in the nation's capital to meet the problem face-to-face.

Mitch Snyder, who runs a shelter in Washington, told the 800 people at the homebuilders symposium that they were ringed by the homeless.It was not much of an exaggeration.

Two blocks from the Washington Hilton, in an alley, a 64-year-old woman in a smudged, ankle-length wool coat complained about her life on the streets since her husband died in 1976 and she lost her apartment.

"It's a crying shame that people have to live this way," said the woman, who is among as many as 15,000 people who are sleeping these cold autumn nights in the doorways of the nation's capital or in crowded temporary shelters because they have no place to live.

A couple of blocks further, at a subway entrance, Brian Curley, 32, held up a cardboard sign: "Lost apartment to fire . . . please help . . . all gifts are welcome."

Estimates of the number of homeless Americans range from 250,000 to several million. Experts agree that they will be a major challenge for President-elect George Bush's administration.