Minnie Wilson still couldn't believe she had received a check for $102.

"Maybe I'll buy myself some shoes or food or something," she daydreamed. "I can think of lots of things I need.

For Wilson and thousands of other Washington-area residents, Christmas came two weeks late yesterday in the form of federal government checks, which are supposed to help the poor and disabled to pay their heating bills this winter.

But in its haste to issue the emergency checks, the government neglected to determine the recipient's living arrangements. Minnie Wilson is a resident of The House of Ruth, a woman's shelter in the District of Columbia. The cost of heating is included in the rent. Five checks, totaling over $500, were delivered to the shelter this week -- each addressed to one of the residents.

"It was like a Christmas present from heaven," said the shelter's director, Veronica Maz.

One Silver Spring man received a check for $140 this week. But the man, who is mentally ill, is a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Before that, he lived in a Silver Spring boarding house where the heat was paid for.

"I fail to see the logic in this," said the man's brother-in-law. "I'd like to send the check back, but I'm not sure where to send it. Logic says he's not entitled to it, but the law says he is."

In Norfolk, Va., more than 25 of the 60 residents of a high-rise apartment building financed by a Norfolk church, and who do not pay for heat directly, said yesterday they had received the checks.

The Social Security Administration, which dispensed nearly 4 million of the bonus checks to aged, blind and disabled people who already receive supplemental security income, said it was not practical to dispense the emergency assistance any other way.

"To go through all the files and discover what living arrangements people had would have taken us through the winter," said spokesman Jim Brown.

The cost of the nationwide program was $400 million, part of a larger energy assistance package authorized by Congress last year. Almost everyone who receives government welfare checks under the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) was eligible for the emergency assistance. Those excluded were residents of nursing homes whose heating bills are covered by Medicaid funds.

Brown said the Social Security Administration got all the checks mailed out in six weeks. The amount of money dispensed to each individual varied from state to state, based on a complicated three-part formula.

As a result, about 50,000 Maryland residents will receive about $6.5 million in special energy allowances, Brown said. In Virginia, about 80,000 residents will get $8.1 million, and the District's 15,000 eligible residents will get about $1.5 million.

The notice that accompanied the checks said that "the amount was based on part on the average temperature in your state."

Maryland residents were sent individual checks for $140; Virginia residents, $106, and District residents, $102. No individual in the country received more than $250.

If a recipient's heating bill is already paid, Brown said, there is nothing illegal about using the money for somethng else. He suggested "warm clothing" but conceded that the government could not control how each check was spent.

The House of Ruth says it plans to ask each of the women if they would consider contributing a small amount of money from the checks for the house's winter heating bills. But the decision will be left to the individual.

Said shelter director Maz, "Why take from the very poor?"