Edith, an old woman, sleeps in a hot, white cloud outside the Interior Department. Clammy steam from the hot air vent is all that stands between the silver-haired woman and the cold, sometimes freezing night.

Wrapped in layers of cold sweaters, brown, green and black, two coats and loads of socks, Edith is one of hundreds of people in the District who call the street home. They sleep on the grills outside D.C. police headquarters, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the State Department and the Kennedy Center.

Unlike the drunks and the deranged who also roam the streets of Washington, Edith talks of a radical independence; untaxed and unattached for the past nine years, she speaks of finding a home for herself in the kindness of strangers and a tedium-free life.

"Bum, I'm bum," said Edith. "I'm doing OK."

Usually people who bed down in the street claim one grill as their own. Milton, 24, who "busts suds," (washes dishes) for a local restaurant, can always be found in riverie near the Kennedy Center. Rudy, a bearded man with long hair, sleeps outside the State Department. Edith lies down near the Interior Department.

"They're all taken, she said, pointing to the other grill."All of them had someone on them tonight so I came over here to sleep. I slept here last night too," she adds, rubbing her face, which is wet and shiny from the steam.

Edith, who said shyly, "I'm over 60, mashed her toothless gums together as she answered questions about her life.

"It didn't work out, that's all. Maybe when I get some money I'll try again, look for some kind of job," she said. "I could try some kind of program to get started . . . they got all kinds of church groups and agencies that want to help you, you know, I'm not lazy but I don't mind being here," she added thoughtfully.

"If I could find a job I wouldn't be out here. I suppose, but I like it out here, it isn't bad. I don't go looking for jobs," she said as cars sped by, with their windows rolled up against the cold.

"People don't believe me when I tell them, but I never wanted a lot of friends, or some place I have to be at this or that time," she said.

Edith's day begins at dawn when the guards from the Interior Department chase her off the vents, she said.

"I don't mind. I'm an early riser and besides, then all the people start walking by on their way to work."

She wears two rings. One is a wedding band.

"He's dead," she said.

The other ring she found in a newspaper she pulled from a trashbasket.

"I read all the papers to keep up with things," she said. "I can't vote though. I don't have an address."

Pulling at her wool knit cap to scratch her scalp, which is itching from the wet steam, Edith said she spends her days walking around town, sitting in museums.

"I don't go nowhere special," she explains. "I go around and watch."

Edith looks up to a sky filled with clouds. Rain or snow forced her into unlocked cars, open churches and under bushes since she began living on the street.

She had worked in New York factories making toys, box springs for beds and sewing. After her husband died she came to Washington to look for a nephew she never found.

"I like Washington, the weather is good. Until this year, anyway. It has really gotten cold this year," she said.

In nine years of living on the street Edith has never gone hungry.

"There is food to eat," she said. "The kids always throw away sandwiches in the trash baskets on the Mall. Sometimes they don't even take a bite of it."

"When I get some money I go over to Scholl's and have a cup of cofee. Once I found a $20 bill right on top of the garbage on K Street. I had a meal and then I went to a hotel and had a bath and a bed for a night."

A police car goes by, its sirens wailiing.

"They don't drink more than like that," she said, holding her fingers an inch or two apart.

"I know one guy and he was over here last night drinking and bothering me," she said. "I stay away from them when they get a drink in them. They start bothering me. Look at what I get for being friendly with him," she said, giving a sharp glance to splinters of a broken liquor around her.

"I got to clean that up," she adds exhaling with exasperation.

Edith doesn't have many friends among the other people who sleep on the streets. She had a friend until a few years ago, but the woman moved to New York.

Even though she is a loner and doesn't have any money, Edith doesn't worry about her future.

"What happens if I get sick?," Edith said repeating a question. "I don't get sick, knock on wood.

Two days after the interview Mrs. David Anderson of McLean saw Edith lying on the grass at 18th and C streets NW and asked her if she was waiting for someone.

"She said no and turned away," said Mrs. Anderson, who had attended a lecture on New Zealand at Constitution Hall. Appaled by Edith's situation, Mrs. Anderson called the police to say that there was a woman sitting out in the cold in some sweaters and old coats.

"The police were so indifferent," Mrs. Anderson said. "They asked me if she didn't have any clothes on. I said no but she's out there freezing. Such indifference, I can't stant it."

Police in the District and social agencies have a hard time with the people who sleep and live in the street.

"There is no law against sleeping in the streets," a police spokesman said about the street people. "To be very frank we don't do anything with them. "Sometimes we'll check them to see if they're injured but if they tell us to leave them alone, and they usually do, then we leave them alone."

The spokesman said the officers who patrol the streets often know these people and can tell then they really do need some help.

The street sleepers can go to places like the Gospel Mission on 5th Street NW or the Central Union at 16th and C streets NW, but in both places they have to pray as well as pay for their bed.

"I ain't going to go to the Mission and pray for no bed, I can sleep out here damn well," said a man whose face was laced with a series of thin scars from razor blade cuts.

The man, who refused to give his name, was sleeping outside police headquarters.

"You're a young boy, you anin't never been out here, you'd die out here," he told a visitor. "I been living in the streets all my life. I like it out here.