They were not the likeliest of couples, the fashionable Potomac woman with the perfectly manicured nails and the wiry man who works as a short-order cook when he isn't living on the street. But at the corner of Virginia Avenue and 21st Street NW, they greeted each other as old friends -- which they are.

"Hi, sweetheart," said Ilene Leventhal, stepping forward to embrace the man, who gave his name only as Jesse. He grinned broadly and hugged her back. A few feet away, a small crowd of men and women -- mostly men -- crowded around the back of Leventhal's van to await their first hot, home-cooked meal of 1991.

It was all in a holiday's work for Leventhal, who until a year ago was just another suburban resident who saw pictures of the homeless on the 6 o'clock news. Unlike most, she was moved to do something. The result is an organization called Hand to Hand that delivers hot meals to homeless people in the District on Sundays and holidays, when many church and city organizations take a breather.

"People say, 'If you feed them, they'll never get out and work,' " Leventhal said yesterday as she steered her van -- stuffed to its roof with 170 hot dinners, donated clothes, toiletries and four volunteer helpers -- along the Whitehurst Freeway to her first stop of the day, a freeway underpass in the shadow of the Watergate Hotel. "But 75 to 80 percent of our regular guys work. They prefer to sleep on the streets because the shelters are dangerous."

The organization, which celebrated its first year of existence yesterday, has evolved from a one-family endeavor that delivered 18 meals on its first foray into the District to a 100-member group that distributes food, clothing and social welfare references to hundreds of people each week. And it has transformed Leventhal from a neophyte into a determined advocate for the homeless.

Her current crusade is against the practice of periodic police sweeps to clear out homeless people who camp on steam grates -- particularly those near federal buildings. Where, she asks, are the homeless to go?

At the corner of Virginia Avenue and 21st Street, Jesse said, the police came through in November and removed all the belongings of the approximately 10 homeless people who make the corner grate their home.

"Some of us do work, and we can't carry our stuff to work," he said.

The result is a never-ending guerrilla war between the homeless, who frequently band together in impromptu encampments, and the police, who respond to neighborhood pressure to rid the streets of panhandlers.

Yesterday's tour took Leventhal to five stops, all within a 15-block downtown area that included the White House. At each stop, people gathered to pick up aluminum pans of Hoppin' John, a traditional Southern New Year's dish of rice, black-eyed peas and ham, cooked for the occasion by Todd Rushing, a chef at the Pleasant Pheasant.

Sometimes the crowds were orderly. But at one point, a man and a woman scuffled in the background.

Leventhal is under no illusions about the homeless or the possibility of a long-term solution to their problem. But she said getting out on the streets and doing something about it beats watching the problem on television.

"It's moral and it's spiritual," she said, explaining her motives, "but it's not religious. Maybe it is religious to some people."

And it's teaching her something: "People out there really care. They just need a vehicle to help," she said.