Elderly residents of a complex of small, neat houses hidden from the mainstream of traffic on Chillum Road in Prince George's County say they live in fear of the outside world.

Many are afraid to venture out of their Rollingcrest Village homes to the shopping center next door, even in the daytime, because they are easy prey for muggers, according to Bea Cope, 70. Cope lives in a secluded section of the 44-unit Chillum complex, which is operated for senior citizens by the county housing authority.

"At least 10 people living in the 18 homes on our side of the complex have been mugged or clobbered in the past few years," said Cope, a former president of Rollingcrest's senior citizens' club. "To get to the stores we have to go down a ramp, hidden from the street, and through an alley. Most of us are afraid to do this, especially after dark."

Cope's circumstances and fears are shared by many in the six-town area composed of Mount Rainier, Chillum, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Colmar Manor and Cottage City. Community officials estimate that as many as 30 percent of the residents of those towns are 60 or older.

In a move to protect the elder citizens, county police devised Project SAFE (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment) in 1974.

The program was enacted in Mount Rainier in 1976 after an activist organization, Betterment for United Seniors (BUS), complained of a rash of muggings and rapes of older women. Four officers were assigned to patrol the town's streets, where they could serve as "visual deterrents" to crime, and could give residents advice on how to protect themselves, according to Cpl. James Huff, 38, who supervises Project SAFE.

Two months later the five other towns were added to the patrol area, but the number of officers remained the same. On foot and on motor scooters, the police patrol a 10-mile route covering the business and residential area from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.

After the first year, crimes against senior citizens in SAFE's operating area decreased steadily until 1980. Then, a sharp rise in all crime was reported in the six towns, including an increase in assaults on elderly persons, Huff said. In the first nine months of the 1980-1981 fiscal year, the 367 crimes of all types and the 78 crimes against the elderly were nearly double those reported in the same period of the previous year.

Police attribute the increase largely to economic hard times and rising unemployment.

Although Huff considers SAFE an effective program, he said it has its problems.

Adding more officers would make the project more effective, but the police department's budget squeeze prohibits that, he said.

Other problems, he said, "sometimes . . . are with the seniors themselves, who provided the criminal with too many opportunities to commit crimes." Most offenses are committed during the day, while the elderly go about their daily routines. The most common crime is purse-snatching.

Huff believes that by taking a few precautions, older people could avoid becoming victims "without staying holed up at home."

The 6-foot-6 Huff speaks to clubs, senior citizen groups and municipal meetings. He also visits private homes, on requests, to adivse the elderly: "I tell them not to carry more money than they need, ask them not to carry purses on shopping trips and tell them to travel in groups, especially after dark.

"Older people tend to be too trusting, he continued. "Seniors should not open doors for people they do not know, nor should they give large amounts of money to people they are not familiar with."

Last month, two men dressed as maintenance workers entered the Mount Rainier apartment of a 74-year-old woman, after telling her they were sent to make repairs. The Queenstown complex is being renovated and the elderly, arthritic woman did not find their presence unusual, Huff said. Inside, the two tried to rape the woman, Huff said.

"Had the woman requested proper identification before letting the men in, the incident may not have occurred," Huff said.

Rollingcrest Village residents like Project Safe, but the believe they need still more protection.

"When the program first started a few years ago, we would see Corporal Huff and his men every day. But we haven't seen them in months," said Cope, as she sat in her living room surrounded by elderly neighbors, who nodded their heads in agreement. "And even when the police are here, the kids learn their routine and wait for the police to leave before bothering us."

One of Cope's friends, who asked not to be identified because she feared retaliation, said she was mugged at gunpoint last February at 12:30 in the afternoon. The assailant "got me on the ramp, hidden from the street. I am terrified to leave my home now and rearely go out after five," she said.

Huff said his men patrol with the same frequency as ever, and will attempt to make themselves more visible to the residents.

More help may be on the way, according to Margaret Reilly, administrative director of the county housing authority. She said she is looking for funds to hire a guard for Rollingcrest.

"Most of our (other) complexes are high-rises near the District line and we have already put guards in them," she said. She urged the Rollingcrest residents to help her make a case for federal and county funds to pay for a guard, by reporting all crime problems.

Colmar Manor Police Chief Mike Mulligan, 70, said the elderly should take more of a stand in their own defense.

"We cannot help the seniors if they do not help themselves," he said. "Huff is doing a great job, and we have a program of our own (to educate the elderly about crime risks), but the only solution is the elderly getting involved in their own protection."

Despite SAFE's limitations, town officials, local police officers, area merchants and residents all sing its praises.

Mount Rainier Mayor Linda Nalls said, "It gives them (the elderly) a great deal of confidence to see policemen walking the streets day by day."

The Rev. Harold Brown, a Baptist minister who runs a shoe repair and dry cleaning store on Mount Rainier's busy 34th Street, said store owners feel safer with Huff walking the beat.

"Huff and his men are doing a fine job," he said. "Police are busy and have a lot of territory to cover, but this program brings the police to the people. It makes us feel like human beings."

Faith Loveless, an activist with BUS, which provided the impetus for Project SAFE, does not plan to ease up in her campaign for safety on the streets.

"We've worked so hard for so long to get seniors out of the house, because they live longer tht way, and then things like this (violent crime) happen. The county police are helping, but we need more."