When District resident Suzanne D. Lee, 27, tried to apply for food stamps last May, social service workers wouldn't take her application right away. Instead, they asked her to come in three times, even though she was in a wheelchair and couldn't get around easily.

Lee, who broke both legs when a car hit her while she was bicycling, had to wait at least a month and a half to receive her benefits, even though federal law stipulates that food stamps be available within 30 days. The art student, who waited tables until her accident, lived off charity until she finally received public assistance in July.

"I could have ended up on the streets . . . {and} I know there's a lot of cases that were worse than mine," Lee said.

More and more needy Washington area residents are finding they cannot get the federal benefits they are legally entitled to because the swelling ranks of the unemployed have combined with state and local budget cuts to strain social service agencies to the breaking point.

"You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip. {Social service agencies} do not have enough workers," said Loudoun Legal Services paralegal Tracey Upton, who helps clients get public assistance. "They have to hire more workers or be forced to."

The situation is worse in Virginia than Maryland, where the Income Maintenance Administration has directed local agencies to divert most resources to processing applications. "We've given up some things on the other end . . . one of the most important decisions we've made in Maryland was to prioritize," said Executive Director Joe Raymond.

In Maryland, more than 95 percent of all food stamp and Aid to Families with Dependent Children applications were processed within the 30-day limit in December. In Virginia, as of September, the most recent statistics available, less than 85 percent of food stamp and welfare applications were processed on time.

The District does not keep statistics on how fast it processes food stamp applications, and is under court order to hire enough workers to process AFDC applications, said John Bayne, deputy administrator of income maintenance.

Advocates for the needy say that these statistics are misleading, because many people are not being allowed to file applications when they come in, and the official time clock doesn't start until the application is filed.

"They are counting from the date of the interview, but {that is} one to three weeks after these people first ask for food help," said Prince William legal services paralegal Patricia Duecy.

Thousands of needy families with small children are risking eviction and thousands more people, from senior citizens to babies, are going hungry while they wait a month or more for overburdened social workers to process the flood of applications washed in by the economic slump.

"I lost my home . . . . I'm about to lose my car," said a 30-year-old single mother who is waiting for Loudoun County to process her applications for food stamps and medical assistance.

"I would not be there unless I needed it. You don't go there unless you need help," said the Leesburg resident, who asked not to be identified.

The federal government provides money for programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and AFDC, the nation's main welfare program. But state and local governments must provide matching money for some programs and pay part of the administrative expenses.

Most social service departments have frozen badly needed positions, even as their caseloads have increased. In Prince George's County, caseloads are 25 percent higher than last year, but 21 of the agency's 129 caseworker and clerical positions are vacant, said social services spokeswoman Christine Felker.

Other jurisdictions, from the outer suburbs of Anne Arundel and Prince William counties to urban Arlington County and the District, are reporting similiar problems.

Average monthly food stamp cases in Montgomery County rose 23 percent last year, said LaFrance Mudrow, chief of income maintenance. In Alexandria, AFDC cases rose 22 percent for the 1990 fiscal year, and the average number of active clients topped 1,000 for the first time since 1984.

In Fairfax County, less than half of food stamp applicants between June and September received benefits within the mandated 30 days, according to state statistics. Benefit programs manager Juani Diaz said she needs 46 more workers, on top of the 100 she has, to meet state workload standards.

Activists filed suit against the District last fall, contending that would-be food stamp applicants were getting "run around," and legal services lawyers in Virginia are considering similar action.

Prince William County recently approved hiring 14 workers to process applications, but most people still cannot get appointments quickly. "It was always three days; now we're talking weeks," Social Services Director Ricardo Perez said.

Many local social services agencies also are skimping on legally required -- but in their view, less important -- processes like reviewing ongoing cases to ensure assistance recipients are still eligible.

"Something's got to give," said Gary Cyphers, director of human services in Alexandria.

Forty-nine of the 50 states reported an increase in AFDC cases last year, and suits have been filed against food stamp programs in nine states and the District, said Darlene Barnes, spokeswoman for the federal Food and Nutrition Service.

Smaller federal programs also have suffered from the client crunch.

The Manassas job-training program for welfare recipients ran out of day-care money only a few weeks after the program began in October. State officials say the city will get more money shortly, but in the meantime, a 27-year-old mother of two, who asked not to be identified, has had to revise her plans to get a degree in physical therapy.

Rather than take nine credits at Northern Virginia Community College, the Manassas woman has had to take only six, and work part time to pay for day care, even though she is legally entitled to the federal subsidy.

Getting her degree, which would allow her to get off welfare, will now take nearly three years, instead of two, but the woman said she is determined to persevere. "I need to show my kids that their mom did do something," she said.

With state and local budget deficits skyrocketing, social service officials said they can't expect to hire more staff to solve the problem.

"We're facing tremendous limitations across the board . . . . You can't stop picking up garbage because you need more food stamp workers," said Bayne, the District deputy administrator. "We're just stuck."

Instead, most local social service departments are trying to streamline application processing and skip, or cut down, less urgent administrative duties.

The Prince George's social services department has started interviewing applicants in groups, rather than one on one, to save time, said Director Henry L. Gunn III. Both Maryland and Virginia have been working to combine forms to save time on paperwork, and both states have allowed local offices to reduce their emphasis on fraud investigation and quality control.

These shortcuts could end up costing the social service programs more in the long run, officials said, because fewer cases will be closed and more people who are not entitled to aid will get it erroneously.

Maryland's error rate rose from 8.6 percent in the 1988 fiscal year to 10.07 percent in 1989, about the same time applications started to increase rapidly, Raymond said.

Exhausted caseworkers also make mistakes, workers said, that further delay benefits for people like Rockville resident Mary Clevenger, 40, who applied for welfare and medical assistance six months ago.

Clevenger, who receives food stamps for her five children and two grandchildren, said she has filed papers more than six times in the intervening months and has had to reapply because a caseworker failed to realize which benefits she was applying for.

"I applied in June, and it's not doing me any good," said Clevenger, whose youngest child is 2. "They say you've got to work with the system, but . . . what's wrong with the system?"