DEAR LOIS: I always read articles on the "homeless" with great interest and emotion, but I have never taken the time to respond. Tonight I will. Your story of Pete reminds me of someone I know quite well, a lady who occasionally plays the harmonica in a red-and-purple clown suit outside Crossroads Mall - my mother.Mom has been living by her wits on the street for years. Sometimes she spends the night in a hospital waiting room, sometimes she crawls through the window of an empty house, sometimes she manages to exchange cleaning for rent in a rundown boarding house. Often she takes up with her ex-husband, who himself is desperately, violently, mentally ill. When we are lucky, she comes to us. The last time she came home was around Labor Day. She and I were doing quite well together, but she ran again yesterday, and I am sitting here missing her. Running away certainly isn't anything new, but it still makes me a little sad when it happens.

Forgive me, Lois, if I do not provide you with extraordinary detail as to how her condition evolved. Mom thinks of herself as normal, and it is not for me to unmask her. Suffice it to say that 25 years ago she was a social worker and a published author, and now . . . now she sells her blood and plays the harmonica.

Welfare labels her as "schizoid" and "masochistic" for the purpose of authorizing her monthly grant, but they provide no counseling or medication. And as you've already seen with Pete, it's not likely that she would stay with it even if it were offered. I've really battered myself with questions like: Just how sick is she? Should I force her to seek and stay with some sort of therapy? Should I have her committed? Should I go downtown and drag her back with me? Am I doing too much or not enough? Where do I draw the lines?

You used words like "lonely" and "frightened" and "child" in your editorial. They describe Mom. You cannot imagine the profound fear I see in her when she has to deal with the "normal" affairs of my world. I've seen how she anticipates the job interviews required by her self-sufficiency worker. They send her into a panic. The night before the interview, she'll stay in the bathroom for hours, physically sick. Rather than keep the appointment, she'll run. And if by some miracle she finds a job, she'll lie awake at night worrying about when and how they'll fire her.

These WEAT assignments (the state's Work Experience and Training program) are particularly hard on her. They're designed to teach her job skills, good work habits, build her self-esteem and maybe even give her an inside shot at a job. It's a joke. At best, she is treated like any other new employee - at worst, she is treated like a "welfare case" who is just "putting in her time." People like Mom need deferential treatment to put them out of that gully you referred to.

I drove her to one WEAT assignment at 5:30 every morning for two months. It was in a school lunch kitchen. She was never late, she never missed a scheduled day and she cheerfully did all the dirty work. Her WEAT allotment was about 50 cents an hour. When a permanent part-time position opened up, the school district hired a college student and told her they didn't need her any more. We nearly lost her that time.

I convinced her to try again. This time, she worked right in the APA (Assistance Payments Administration) welfare office. They tucked her behind a filing cabinet shredding papers by hand and never said another word to her. That job lasted two weeks before she got discouraged and walked out. Then they assigned her to the American Fork Training School. She never showed up; there is no bus route from Provo to American Fork. As a result, APA sanctioned her welfare check for two months.

Do you know what the dollar amount of that last assignment was? Twenty dollars. For $20 all the work we had done with her for the previous 12 months was destroyed. She disappeared right after that. It took me a month to find her, another two to restore trust, and yet another two before she came back home.

There are other problems with the system and there are other circumstances with Mom, but my point is this: My mother is not a "welfare case," neither is she a "service project" or a "bag lady." She is somebody's mother - mine. And Pete is not a "bum" or a "street person" or one of the "homeless." He is somebody's son.

Mom and Pete are individuals. I'm glad we have social services to meet some of their needs, but it's a mistake to think a system can ever be strong enough or personal enough to pull them off the skids. You and I have seen their devastating emotional problems. It may not be possible to totally alleviate them, but we can try. Our whole family is deeply committed to Mom. When she is away, we try to contact her at least once a week. We tell her our news, give her some money and a hug, and let her know our doors are always open. When she is staying with one of us, the others call almost daily. She babysits the grandchildren (and I want you to know what a big show of faith that is), goes to family barbecues and attends the symphony with her daughters. When she is with me, she has her own set of keys to my car and takes it whenever she wants.

There is a lot to be said for prevention. I want to ask everyone I meet: Do you know where your mother is? Your father? Your brother or sister? Do you know how they are feeling? If they are starting to slide, are you making their welfare your business? We cannot afford to postpone caring, or they will be gone.

Amid all the busy-ness of our lives, surely each of us can find the time and space to care for one lonely individual. To those who are fortunate enough to give a healthy accounting of their loved ones, I would ask: Did you pass by my mother today? She might have been hitchhiking or carrying her heavy shopping bags or playing her harmonica outside the mall. Did she look well? I'm glad. Did you offer her a quarter? Thank you. Did you smile and tell her you enjoyed her music? You helped. Maybe she'll come home this weekend.