Persons seeking city help to pay their home heating bills are finding the program more difficult -- and confusing -- than in previous years.

The misunderstandings stem from major changes in the federal low-income energy assistance program, including changes in program administration and eligibility requirements.

Most people applying for aid seem unaware that the program is no longer supplying emergency funds, and that applicants must wait as long as two weeks for assistance once their application is approved, says Chelsye Williams, information specialist for the city's program.

However, none of the 2,000 persons who have applied thus far have received checks because the city hasn't received the allocated $5.7 million needed to administer the program. Moreover, the city has yet to approve a contract calling for an outside computer firm to process the applications. As a result, program employes have been going over applications one by one.

"People expect the same things as last year," Williams said. "They expect faster service because maybe their heat was cut off. People expect more money or a lump sum. It's just not like that this year."

Last year, applicants to the city's Community Services Administration were given a one-time payment of as much as $700 for fuel and assistance with other energy-related costs, such as utility and water bills. This year the program is under the Department of Health and Human Services' United Planning Office, which pays only for a household's primary heating bill, depending on the type of housing, household income and the kind of heating fuel used.

Another source of confusion is that payments no longer are made to individuals. The money goes directly to the fuel supplier, and the process takes about two weeks.

"It's not that they're confused, they're just ignorant about the new program," says Williams of the aid applicants. "Most likely, next year's program will also be different."

Those receiving food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children or Supplemental Social Security payments already have received applications for the home heating aid. Others who believe they may be eligible should bring proof of income to the United Planning Office at 1021 14th St. NW, or call the D.C. Energy Hhotline, 724-2100, for information.