IT IS 10 O'CLOCK in the morning and "the girls" are drifting into Rachael's Women's Center at l006 M St. NW. A shopping cart stuffed with black plastic bags, the signature of the homeless woman, is in the front yard.

They sit in the front room of the shabby old house. Some are leafing through the newspapers. Nobody is talking. It's like a dentist's waiting room.

One of the women, who is wearing heavy wool knee-high stockings, carries two pocketbooks. Another is furiously painting a watercolor of the interior. Her glance, when she turns around from her work, is blank. A robust, black-haired woman is clumping around in high, fleece-lined boots.

It's a typical day in the life of the daytime shelter. The women must leave their nighttime shelters by 8:30. At Rachael's they have a coffee break, and at noon, lunch. At four they set out for dinner at the churches and return to their shelters by 5:30, which is opening time.

The nights are bad for the homeless, especially in winter, but the days are huge blanks. There's the library, and the art gallery, and if one is feeling strong, a park. But parks are dicey, because a woman is almost certain to be propositioned and could be raped -- even in broad daylight.

Rachael's Women's Center has operated since l979. It offers a place to come to, someone to talk to, a shower, a laundry, lunch, job counseling and, most vitally for the mentally ill, a chance to get medical help. Dr. E. F. Torrey, a Washington psychiatrist, volunteers at the center every other Wednesday.

The majority of mentally ill homeless women in the District, as in the country, are schizophrenics. Dr. Torrey, who has made a study, thinks that if they are not curable, they are at least treatable and with the proper drugs can be stablized and can even function in the real world.

Not all of Rachael's regulars have mental problems.

One 30-year-old black woman named Janelle said bitterly, "If you live in a shelter, you are stereotyped. They automatically think you're crazy."

Janelle is an army veteran with six years of service who graduated with honors from the supply school at Fort Ord in California and once worked as a data processor. She came to Washington to be reunited with her brothers and sisters, but it didn't work out. On Thanksgiving Day she was out in the rain with no place to go. Someone directed her to Mt. Carmel, the shelter run by Catholic Charities and the Carmelite sisters. She has looked everywhere for work, but all she could find was a job as an itinerant guard at a People's drug store.

"I'm as capable as the next person, but I can't get a chance," she says.

After lunch at Rachael's -- hearty servings of sauerkraut and franks -- everyone is more cheerful and chattier. A woman who looks like a suburban matron in her flowered print dress tells me in refined tones that she is a free-lance fashion designer. She sleeps at the Calvary Baptist Church shelter and regrets that the mattresses on the floor have been replaced by cots.

Rachael's co-director, Sister Mary Ann Luby (of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart), a slender woman with short grey hair and an encouraging smile, says Marion comes from a well-to-do family, has children and has probably been in a mental institution at some time. She refuses to see Dr. Torrey, saying, "Nobody is going to lock me up."

Jean, a woman of about 50, comes in walking carefully in an immaculate white linen dress. She is complimented on her grooming, and she says grandly, "I come from a Dutch family. The Dutch have a reputation for being clean."

Sister Mary Ann reports that last week Jean came in full of lice. She was throwing chairs at people. She will not see Dr. Torrey.

Jean has beautiful blue eyes and impeccable makeup. She is wearing a heavy white sweater. She tells me that she is working on a story about the homeless, and is visiting the shelters for material.

Sister Mary Ann says that Jean has been sleeping at the airport for a year and a half. She refuses all medical treatment.

Sister Mary Ann loves her work. The only thing that rattles her is when the transvestites from across the street try to barge in. She can handle being attacked with a kitchen knife, as happened one day, or having a guest who smashes the television set. But the lack of coordination in District services annoys her.

Sister Mary Ann sees the women begin to think of others, and "that is the beginning of mental health." She was undone when the women pitched in and bought her a pair of Calvin Klein jeans for her birthday.

She does not baby the women. She wants them out of the shelters. The challenge is to "provide them some kind of support so they can take care of themselves."

The rent at Rachaels's, which gets no District or federal money, is $650 a month. Food is no problem, it is donated; so are clothes. The difficulty is motivation.

Rachael's regulars went to Hands Across America. They were surprised to see Ronald Reagan holding hands.

"This is too big a problem for volunteers," says Sister Mary Ann. The federal government should provide housing, so these women have a place to go."