MIAMI -- For the first hour of our visit, Dorothy Perry's home is just another modest apartment: reasonably neat, though a bit cluttered. A baby coos in a tiny swing, indifferent to the 90-degree heat and the futility of two electric fans . . .

Then suddenly we are joined by Wayne and Kenton and Valerie and Michael and maybe six or eight other youngsters ranging from first grade to 10th. Miz Dot's children are home from school.

Actually, they aren't her offspring at all. Her five are grown up and living on their own. The orderly mob in her living room comprises children who live down the street or blocks -- even miles -- away from Perry's public housing apartment in Miami's Liberty City area. Their reasons for being at Miz Dot's are almost as numerous as the children themselves, who on some evenings number three dozen or more.

"Some of the kids are from homes where there's drug abuse," she explains. "Some of them are from homes where there's alcohol abuse. Some of them just want to belong. I have two girls whose mother is on the road; she just about abandoned her children, and her mother is trying to raise them. Her mother, she's old and trying to work. She called me and told me, 'Miz Dot, you got to help me with these girls.' I say, 'Just send them around here.' They'll come and they'll stay awhile, then they'll go back home."

For these youngsters, Dorothy Perry's home is a haven: their place to study, eat, talk about the day's activities and, too often for the local housing authority, sleep.

Three times they have tried to evict her on the ground that the size of her informal family violates the condition of her lease. The last time it happened, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp called them off.

"They say I'm breaking my lease because I'm running a program {she calls it Youth Progress in Public Housing} from my house," she says. "The last thing they told me was that they are afraid some of the children are going to get hurt here. Fifteen years now, and nobody's child has gotten hurt. I'm not saying it can't happen, but they can get hurt playing in the yard or on the back street or in the park, where nobody lets their children go because there's so much rape and stuff going on. I was called in quite a few meetings, then I just stopped going."

What is there about Perry's crowded and impoverished apartment that makes it so attractive to such a variety of youngsters?

"One thing about it, I always make time to listen," she says. "I listen, even if I'm busy. Sometimes I be in the kitchen, going from the stove to the sink, and they be right behind me. 'Grandma, let me tell you this,' 'Grandma, let me tell you . . . Grandma is you listening?' I'll say, 'Yes, I'm listening; nothing's wrong with my ears, just my hands are busy.' "

But Dot Perry does a lot more than listen. Her nightly schedule begins with Bible reading ("We start with Genesis at the beginning of the year, and by the end of the year, we be completed the Bible.") and may be followed, depending on the day of the week, by Gospel singing, coupon clipping, cooking, "ambition rap" ("That's where we sit around and talk about our likes and dislikes, our happy times and our sad times, what we want to do with our lives") and always study.

"I can't always help them with their homework, since I'm not an educated woman. So they share each other's homework. Like {10-year-old} Kenton, who's so smart he scares me sometimes, will sit down with the little ones and help them with their homework. I have to remind him not to give them the answer, just show them how to do it. I try to teach them to be mentors for each other. We all learn together. I learn from them, they learn from me. It's a beautiful experience."

Perry has been having her beautiful experience since 1968. "It started when the state took this one girl away from her mother and gave her to the grandmother, and the grandmother died. Then she started living with a sister, and the sister put her out, so I just took her in. It just sort of took off from there."

And where does it end? For a woman with few resources, who sometimes lets her bills go unpaid for her kids, and who scrounges help where she can find it, Dorothy Perry is not wanting in ambition. "My dream," she says, "is a big house by a lake, with different sections for cooking, sewing and other skills taught by senior citizens, so they can feel useful, too. It would be a safe haven for young and old."

More immediately, she'd settle for a van "so we wouldn't have to cancel out of some very important programs like we did this past summer because we didn't have the transportation to get there."

And what about money for herself?

"You know, I never thought about that," she said.