HOPEWELL, VA. -- In the heart of Hopewell, hidden from view, a tent stands in a clearing in the woods.

A few feet away, leaves camouflage a small stove, some canned and dried foods and a few tins. A hammock stretches between two trees.

The campsite has been home to Steven G. Pruett for the past five months. Pruett, who is 28 and an Army veteran, suffers from a mental illness and was committed to state institutions after twice overdosing on medication.

In February, Pruett left Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Va., on a two-week pass and vowed never to return. After nearly two months on escape status, he was discharged from the hospital on April 24.

Pruett said he lives in the woods because he cannot deal with people, but he said he still wants to lead a normal life.

"I want something to do with people, but something inside turned me into a hermit." he said in a recent interview.

On Feb. 12, the day Pruett walked away from Central State, he joined the growing list of deinstitutionalized homeless.

Pruett, a soft-spoken man, said he has spent a year seeking financial aid to enable him to find permanent shelter, and that finding the clearing in the woods was easier than finding his way through red tape.

He said he has tried the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, a Petersburg temporary shelter and several social service and mental health organizations. Thus far, he said, he has received food stamps, but no other financial assistance.

Pruett said he contacted an assistant of Rep. Norman Sisisky (D-Va.) who set up a hearing on Monday before a Richmond judge who will determine whether Pruett is entitled to disability payments from Veterans Administration.

Pruett said he receives food stamps from the Hopewell Social Services, and that he has been denied Supplemental Security Income.

"I sort of fall through the cracks," he said.

Louis J. Specter, superintendent of Hopewell Social Services, said a case such as Pruett's falls under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. Food stamps are all Pruett is entitled to from social services, he said, adding that the department does not handle housing.

Pruett also has received assistance from the Hopewell-Prince George Counseling Services. Eileen J. McHugh, the service's area director, who sees Pruett twice a week said Pruett should reapply for benefits from Social Security benefits or appeal the denial of benefits.

The local Social Security supervisor, Beverly St. John, said that Pruett has to prove that his disability is severe enough that he cannot keep a job. Benefits are $340 a month.

The problem, according to one state official, is that mental disabilities are more difficult to prove to Social Security officials than are physical disabilities.

Jennifer Fidura, deputy commissioner for the state mental health department, said mental health problems do not make an individual as readily eligible for disability as medical problems do. "That's been a significant concern among professionals . . . ," she said. "Mental illness issues have not been as protected in policy decisions as have others."

A spokesman for the Hopewell police said the problem shows the need for more help for deinstitutionalized people. "They do tend to fall through the cracks," said Timothy M. Gladis. "It's a whole Catch-22 situation. It's frustrating. It becomes a police problem when it's a mental health problem."

Pruett plans to continue to live in his tent, awaiting the the outcome of his appeal. As his 29th birthday approaches Aug. 12, he said that "I hope I'm out of the woods by then."