THEY ARE HOMELESS street women, but on this afternoon in early autumn, Sara Malone, 67, and Helen Pick, 58, are receiving rare comforts for their tired, exiled bodies and beaten spirits. They are in the hospital. Someone cares about them.

In room 4E21 of Howard University Hospital, Malone sits in a chair at the foot of her bed and looks up expressionlessly when two visitors appear. She is thin-waisted, nearly toothless, has a pale weathered face and speaks in halting, monotone sentences.

Malone recognizes one of the visitors: Connie Ridge, a generous-hearted volunteer social worker who has served several years at one or another of the city's shelters for homeless women. As an update on her progress, Malone lifts her partly bandaged left arm. On it, as well as the right arm, are scabs and scars from human bites.

At 10 p.m. Sept. 3, Malone, about 100 feet from the entrance of Mt. Carmel House, a 40-bed overnight shelter for women on G Place NW, was attacked by a vagrant man who pummeled her face into bloodiness. He sunk his teeth into her arms. Malone managed to get away and stagger back to Mt. Carmel House. Sr. Maureen Fultz, the Carmelite who opened the door, saw only the blood and wounds and did not at first recognize Malone, a regular at the home. Sr. Maureen cleaned the wounds and took Malone to the Howard University Hospital emergency room where she was treated and released.

Several days later, after Malone believed she had recovered, she returned to the streets. Her left arm became infected. It ballooned grotesquely. Sr. Maureen took her back to the hospital where she was to remain through the early part of October.

Across town at George Washington University hospital, Helen Pick, in a wheelchair with two pillows, was resting in a corridor at a 5th floor nursing station. Her face was lightly rouged and her greying hair well- coifed. She had a wedding ring on one hand.

Pick was in a wheel chair because both her legs were amputated in early June, the left one at the upper thigh and the right one above the knee. She doesn't recall the details of what happened, nor does anyone close to her. It is believed that after cashing her Social Security disability check in the first week of June, Pick fell asleep in an abandoned building. A beam loosened from the ceiling and dropped across her legs. Or robbers may have heaved the beam over her after stealing her money. Somehow, she did not come to and call out for help until the blood circulation in her legs had been cut off. Gangrene had set in. When brought to the hospital, no choice was left but to amputate.

Pick, whose husband had worked for Pepco for more than 30 years and where she worked for 15, began sleeping in such shelters as the House of Ruth and Sarah's House in 1977 shortly after she was widowed. She had a drinking problem and could not keep her apartment going. No options remained but the streets by day and the shelters by night.

Last winter, Pick often spent mornings and afternoons at the Mt. Vernon Place Methodist Church day shelter at Massachusetts Avenue NW. As a teen-ager in a middle-class Washington family in 1940, she sang in the choir at the church.

These two women might appear to be worst-case examples of homelessness. But after two weeks of interviewing unhoused women, visiting the staffs at five of the core-city shelters and attending two emergency meetings of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, I learned that worst-case stories are the rule more than the exception. No woman who falls to this life of raw deprivation has had a soft descent. If the crash to the bottom was less harsh for some, it is because the support system that kept the person within the bounds of security -- a job, a family, government programs, a place to get medical help -- was pulled away slowly, not abruptly.

"I don't want to talk to you," said Ada Moore, at first, in a grainy voice, throwing a hard look in case I missed her mood. I had said I was from a newspaper. "Every year," she continued,"it's the same thing. They go around and take pictures of us."

Moore, 68, on the streets and in the shelters for 20 years after coming to Washington from New York, rested on a plaza bench near the shopping mall kiosks at 10th and G Streets NW. It is not hard to see why camermen find her photogenic. Her poverty is classic: a hunched back, shriveled face, irregular teeth, eyes abjectly vacant and a presence, as Henry James described a female character, "without bloom."

Moore was one of a dozen women on the benches waiting in the early evening for the dining hall in the basement of the First Congregational Church at 10th and G to open at 6:30. Between 50 and 60 women are fed a full meal there daily.

The conversation was brief but it revealed the art of her survival. "Mt. Carmel's is all filled up. Maybe I'll get in someplace else: The Lutheran church at 14th Street. They were filled up, too, last winter. There aren't enough shelters. A lot of women are on the streets. The year before I was at Carmel, with the sisters. Another year, a lady took us in. I've been robbed 10 or 12 times. I don't carry money anymore." She expressed no doubts that she could take another winter.

On both hands, Moore wore rings. "This ring? Oh, I found it. I was looking for some paper one day and it fell out with the paper." Moore laughed. "So I got it. This other ring, my girl friend gave it to me. She went back to Sweden." Moore nodded to the bundle next to her. "It's just a few clothes, that's all. A change, so I can keep clean."

A companion came over to Moore and said it was time to go in to eat. A few yards up the alley, Beverly Johnson lingered at the door. Except for destitution, she had little in common with Moore. She is in her mid-20s, black, homeless for only three months, well- dressed and has a family. She is vague on specifics. She stays at the House of the Ruth at nights and spends days looking for her 4-year-old boy. Then more vagueness, overlapped with disconnected comments.

"Six months ago," she began, "I was at home with my son and my husband. My boyfriend got beat up. Once by some gang members. . . . They kept him in the hospital. My husband was a bus driver. He's with the National Guard also. And he's a carpenter. My boyfriend was a cook. My child was missing. So I'm here (in Washington) to seek information about him. . . . My husband might know where he's at. But like I said I haven't had any money and he's in Chicago. I'll be here as long as it's necessary for me to contact my child, in Washington, California or Chicago. . . ."

Dinner in the basement was fresh zucchini with melted American cheese, lettuce and tomato salad, toasted rye bread, an apple and tea. Seven tables, with room for eight women at each, were spread near the buffet line. From the dress of the women, it would have been impossible to guess the weather outside. A few wore heavy woolen pullover hats and thick overcoats buttoned to the knees. Another wore a sportshirt and jogging shorts.

During dinner, the conversations, like the clothing, ranged from hot to severely cold. One woman, in her mid-40s, high-strung and bugle-voiced, ranted for 25 minutes. She addressed no one in particular and no one in particular, for sure, listened. Many ate in stone silence.

Next to Ada Moore was a rotund woman who said she had been to St. Elizabeth's that afternoon "to deliver a paper." She had copies of the text and passed them around. It was three single-space well-typed pages titled "These Are Some of My Thoughts and Experiences Which Took Place Two Years Ago." It began: "I was very angry that my sisters and brothers committed me to St. Elizabeth's. . . . I was diagnosed as schizophrenic for 15 years and after 25 hospitalizations. However, after I came to St. Elizabeth's for the third time, they diagnosed me as a manic depressive."

The paper ended: "It has been over a year since I have been in a hospital and I don't plan to go back anytime soon. . . . I feel like I am sane in an insane society. . . ."

No one at the table read the paper. A woman told everyone that Jesus Christ would be returning in three months. That was also ignored.

A small flame of interest was sparked by the story of a pretty young black-haired woman, barely out of her girlhood, who said she was a Harvard-trained "efficiency consultant." She told the women she was from "Trans-Jordan, which is overseas." One dinner companion asked about her visa and her Social Security status. The answers were unfocused: "You've got to have verified diplomatic status if you're doing any kind of consulting within the federal government. You know, you've got to have that."

A woman in a woolen hat and thick overcoat, Ruth Schreiber, ate alone and took tiny bites of her zucchini. Heavy-waisted and with wisps of gray hair falling from her hat into blue clear eyes, Schreiber said she sleeps outdoors on the back stairs of the Labor Department building. "My doctor told me to sleep outdoors for four years. I did that. And I'm all well. I used to have chest problems."

Schreiber likes the Labor Department stairs, but she is suspicious of the police. "I was robbed so many times that the police didn't even write up the reports anymore. Some of the worst thieves I've ever encountered were the city police. The last two chiefs have taken my raincoats. When it rains I just walk in the water."

The meal went as pleasantly as the six volunteer staff workers could make it. On one level, the scene was a large damp bag of misery. On another level, some of the women in the dining hall had come together to form an outpatient mental health clinic. Except there were no doctors, nurses or professional help.

At Sarah House, a 15-bed overnight shelter at 13th and N NW, Kathy St. Clair, the director, spoke of herself and her small staff of volunteers: "The longer I work here, the more I'm struck at how lucky any of us are not to be on the street. It doesn't take much to get there -- just a little twist of fate, really. We shouldn't be quick to look at a homeless person and think to ourselves, 'That will never be me.' "

Estimates on the population of homeless women in Washington range from a few hundred to a possible few thousand. Among the urban exiles, the streets are meaner for homeless females than the males. Women are more vulnerable to personal attacks. The beating of Sara Malone was one of several known assaults, including three rapes, in early September.

The women have such a fear of male drifters or winos suddenly going berserk and venting their fury on them that they rarely even go to the city's soup kitchens for meals. Mostly men are served there. Unlike the men, they are loners, not pack members. Women rarely join "barrel gangs," the clusters of people who huddle around barrel fires in open lots to heat themselves during the winter.

The male homeless are depicted as bums and derelicts, a stereotype that is as false as the one imposed on the female homeless: bag ladies. Few women who sleep in shelters at night and pass the day wandering the streets are either especially ladylike or carriers of bags. Most are destitute, lonely women who are often mentally or physically ill and have either given up hope of recovery or have decided to settle for the scraps of human warmth to be found at from the all- encompassing kindness of people like Sr. Maureen.

Only a few are so defeated as to have gone permanently beyond concern about keeping up some form of human contact. The bundles that some women haul around with them often represent the last ties to a happier past, when the material possessions inside were worn in good health or were gifts of love from a family member. Or perhaps the bundle is an accumulation of "finds" picked out of rubbish cans or discovered on park benches. In the madhouse of the streets, the bundle is a thin link to sanity.

The closest neighbor to the president of the United States is a homeless woman named Mary. She sleeps on the sidewalk next to the police guard stations at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance fronting the White House.

She is small and stooped-over, and wears a gray all-weather poncho with a hood that flops over her face. Next to her, like a faithful pet, is a pull-cart of belongings. Mary, who appears to be in her early 60s, speaks in a flattened-out voice about such great issues of the day as national security, the communist threat and her neighbor, Ronald Reagan, who she says is not really the president. Jimmy Carter was never president either.

The executive police have developed a protective attitude toward Mary over the years. They estimate she has lived on the White House sidewalk for better than a decade. The cops talk with her and share food and coffee. During sub-freezing nights with heavy snowfalls, the woman's tiny body is all but immobilized by drifts that pile up between Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House fence.

The security guards' kindness toward this modern Lazarus at Caesar's gate is as close as we come to a federal policy for homelessness.

The city has a Homeless Belt. It stretches from near-Northeast's House of Ruth (65 beds and under contract from the city) to the edge of Georgetown where "bridge people" -- considered more resilient than barrel people and friendlier than grate people -- live under the Whitehurst Freeway.

In between are the stationhouses of survival. Some are serene, inviting places. Hannah House at 6th and M NW, across the street from Bishop J. B. (Big Daddy) McCollough's famed House of Prayer, is a sparklingly clean three-story house run by a Sister of Mercy and a laywoman who recently left her religious order after 40 years.

It is a "house of gifts," one of the women explains. A motel gave 20 bedspreads, a kitchen-supply company donated a sink and metal cutting tables, some Jesuits in Georgetown passed on their richly designed wool broadloom carpet. The priests, the sisters said, were redecorating.

A block south, at 6th and L NW, is the Zacchaeus Soup Kitchen. As many as 400 men, and a handful of women, appear every morning for a bowl of vegetable soup and whatever breads, crackers or fruit may have been gathered from the Foodbank or donated by friends. Judges send convicted criminals to work at Zacchaeus as alternative sentences. A political-science teacher at Carroll High School brings his students to expose them firsthand to lessons that tend to be missing in the textbooks.

In the past five years, according to a report from the Community for Creative Nonviolence, 29 citizens have died from exposure in the city. This winter, with everyone involved saying that the homeless population is burgeoning, the death toll is expected to be record-setting. The population grows because, in addition to the waves of deinstitutionalized former mental patients, the lack of low-cost housing is pushing people to the margins. The wait time for public housing apartments is three to five years.

Beginning in mid-September, women have been sleeping on the sidewalk outside Mt. Carmel House at G Place NW. First one woman, then two, soon five. They knocked at the door of the four-story building, which was once an orphanage owned by St. Mary's Catholic Church next door, but were told by one of the four sisters inside that every bed and every available inch was taken.

Mt. Carmel House, a clean, well-run and brightly decorated home that is known as the Hilton of the city's half-dozen women's shelters, has filled to capacity since its opening two years ago.

The youngest woman currently spending the nights is 19, the oldest in her late 70s. The persistent reality is the phone. Everyday calls come with dead-end pleas from the city Department of Human Services, the Department of Protective Services, St. Elizabeth's, the courts, the police, hospitals, churches and families. Every call has one statement and one question: "We have a woman with no place to go. Can you take her?"

"In the last three or four months," said Sr. Maureen, who is in her late 20s and who had risen at 5 a.m. to keep watch over the women, "the demographics have been changing. Younger women are coming. Many had kids, were living on AFDC and were probably marginally employed. They gave their kids up to Protective Services and then took to the streets and came to the shelters. That's a drastic difference I've seen in just the past few months. Once they give their kids up. . . . They give up hope. This is a new population."

One of Sr. Maureen's closest friends is a staff member at Mt. Carmel's, Diane Dougherty, a lay social worker paid by the archdiocese. She has a fairly large reservoir of grit mixed with hope, but it is rubbed raw by the friction of dealing with officials of government programs. "These are the programs that are supposedly in business to prevent women from being put out on the streets. That's the frustration we meet everywhere we go, whether we're talking about the public-welfare system, the mental-health system or the health-care system."

Both Sr. Maureen and Dougherty confess to feeling "guilty" because the women they care for, though at the bottom, are not rock- bottom. "There are some out there," said Dougherty, "who might be called sub-hopeless. They won't ever come to a shelter or if they do come they are violent and we have to ask them to leave. We're not really getting the worst of the worst."

One morning, after leaving an overnight shelter where I had been talking with the director about an 85-year-old woman who had appeared a few days earlier, my stomach knotted. On the sidewalk, in a cluster of the homeless, was a woman with a familiar face. She had been a co-worker at The Post for a time. I went over to her. After an awkward few moments -- I didn't remember her name, she didn't remember what floor I worked on -- her story came out. She left work about a year ago. "Pressure," she said mentioned several things she had been learning lately about life, including the fact that the shelter I had just come out of was one of the best in the city. She had stayed there for a time and knew.

Back at the office, I asked about the woman. She had worked in the newsroom. Someone said that she began hearing voices. Another said she had trouble concentrating and had become unpredictable. It wasn't a case of going off the deep end, everone agreed, only the shallow end. But it was enough to sink her.