Simmering bitterness born of frustration is spreading through the dank hallways and dirt courtyards of Washington's public housing developments, "the Projects," where some of the poorest of the city's poor live.

Poor blacks - and poor in Washington nearly always mean black - say they're frustrated and angered by the failure of hard-won civil rights to evolve into economic rights; by the failure of black leaders to lead; by the failure of the welfare system to provide a steppingstone up from poverty.

The system, they say, is intended to fail and to make failures to those who depend upon it. "I call it the 'Mushroom principal' of welfare," Kimi Gray said at Kenilworth Courts, one of the unhappiest of the 23 National Capital Housing Projects. "The keep us in the dark, feed us s -- and then sit back and see how much we grow.And how much can you grow living in the dark, eating s --- ?"

That says a lot about how the project people see themselves - less as people than as parts of a group, an experiment in poverty.

They're poor, but it's wholly different kind of poor than the absolute poverty, of, say, Calcutta. There, it's common to be poor. Most people are. But people here know that there's a better life that could, just might, be theirs. It's in Northwest Washington, it's across the line in the suburbs, it's on television, but it's not theirs in the projects.

This, perhaps, is what makes poverty here more painful than it is in a place like India. It's more a poverty of the spirit than of the body. Few go hungry. Few even admit that they're poor.

Yet, as Diane Moore of Potomac Gardens, on the southeast fringes of Capitol Hill, said of one of her children, "When he asks me for $2 for something he's seen on TV and I just don't have the two bucks, I get a pain, a real pain, here in my chest."

A pain in the chest. Many people in the projects speak of this kind of thing, a great emptiness within. "They call us savages," Kimi Gray said, "and that's why they put us out on these reservations."

There is that kind of atmosphere in the projects. They're isolated, set apart from the beautiful city most Americans think of as their country's capital.

Taxi drivers, black taxi drivers, after their initial surprise at a white fare asking to be driven to projects like Kenilworth Courts, often admit they don't know where the places are. And once they get there, they don't know their way around.

That's understandable. Many project people claim the developments are intentionally isolated from main thoroughfares by mazes of little-known roads, beneath overpasses, beyond sewage plants, power stations and gas storage tanks.

There's the look and feel of reservations. The square, flat, tan brick sameness, repeated over and over; a block of falts, a dirt yard, a block of flats, a dirt yard. No relief.

It's an unnatural life. Everyone's the same, poor and black. Everyone knows all about everyone else, who they are, where they're from, what they're doing, what they're cooking, when they're angry and shouting, when they're happy and laughing, drinking beer or making love.

Much the same could be said about any ghetto. But a normal poor neighborhood is something that just happens, and so there's usually some variety, flavor, color, some relief.

Life in the projects is institutional. Kimi Gray, "Miss Kimi," is something of an institution at Kenilworth Courts, off Kenilworth Avenue in the far reaches of the city's Northeast quadrant. From her yellow, plastic-covered armchair she keeps her fingers on the pulses of the project and its 3,000 or so people.

Although she says she knows just about everything that's going on at Kenilworth Courts and everyone knows her, ("just ask anyone, black, white or green, for Miss Kimi"), Gray said she doesn't really know how many people live there. "We have lots of illegal residents," she said.

Welvin Goodwin of the Office of Housing and Community Development confirmed this, but reckoned that roughly 50,000 people - over 7 per cent of Washington's population - live in projects throughout the city.

With a call from her chair-side phone or a throaty bellow out the window of her cramped, overheated living room, Gray can summon almost any - The other day, wearing a voluminous one in Kenilworth Courts to her side. Orange housecoat, she heaved her ponderous form out of a chair and holered for Michael Harrison.

Harrison, 29, moved to Kenilworth Courts with his family in 1959, when the project was brand new. He and his 10 brothers and sisters grew up there. Now two brothers are in jail, "incarcerated," as they say in the projects, and Harrison has graduated from college. One of Kenilworth Courts' success stores.

"The poor folks of Washington have no leaders," he said softly as he sat opposite Miss Kimi. "The mayor and the City Council provide no leadership whatsoever."

It's a complaint heard everywhere in the projects, at Kenilworth Courts, at Potomac Gardens, across the river at Barry Farm Dwellings in Anacostia, wherever too many poor people live in too little space.

With an occasional exception, most project people have no use for local politicians. The only time they ever come around is during campaigns, they say.

And that goes for national political figures, too, including President Carter. "Jimmy Carter's let the poor folks down," Louis Brent complained angrily one night at the Benning-Stodlert Recreation Center. "He hasn't kept his word to us."

Brent, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, said, "Carter owes his presidency to two groups: the poor, especially we poor blacks, and his rich Southern friends. Well, we can see how he's paying his friends back. But what's he doing for us?"

Not everyone condemns local black leaders, though, those who have allegedly sold out, who have discarded their dashikis for three-piece suits and their clenched fists for titles and desks.

There's a great thirst for jobs in the projects and a grudging respect for anyone who has managed to find one that pays well, let alone carries prestige.

"Good jobs are hard to come by they're always hard to come by for black folks," said Deborah Moore at Southeast Neighborhood House, a key community center in Anacostia. "When the recession came along, many pepole who'd been vocal leaders took what they could, just for suvivial."

"Survival" is a fighting word to Kimi Gray. "We're the greatest survivors in the world," she said. "We've survived for 200 years. But we're ignorant.We need to be educated, in the broadest sense, so that we can start to live and not just survive."

Fighting words. But what do they count for when there are no leaders to spread them, to explain them, to translate them into jobs, into action? Not much, it seems at first.

Sam Jordan isn't so sure. Jordan is a trouble-shooter for Mayor Walter Washington. 'There are lots of angry folks in there," he said the other day, driving a tan District of Columbia government sedan through the projects of Northeast and Southwest Washington.

"Jobs," he said, "thats what got most of them mad. We could have a long, hot summer on our hands."

"A long, hot summer." A phrase out of the past. The Washington summer of 1968, after Martin Luther King was murdered. The summers of Watts, of Harlem, Detroit and Newark. Again?

In a way, they're saying in the projects, today's leaderless, unorganized frustration could prove even more difficult to contain than the civil rights battles.

Civil rights had sex appeal. It attracted not just blacks but liberal whites as well. Today, the issue is economic jobs, and poor blacks no longer feel they have the support of any whites. Lots of whites are out of work, too.

So, they're feeling isolated and forgotten, betrayed, in the Projects. For one thing, there's the widespread perception that "they," the white establishment - Congress and the D.C. Board of Trade - have deliberately bought off important black leaders and replaced them with manageable administrators.

Second, even more widely held is a belief that "they" deliberately continue to sabotage critical education, job training and other black-centered programs, resulting in what Kimi Gray termed the "mushroom principle" of welfare.

"Most poverty legislation was never intended to be successful claimed Jon Mapp, a community services worker in Anacostia. "They're tokens. That's why, as soon as a program seems ready to roll, its funds dry up and everything grinds to a halt."

Harry Kaplan, a colleague of Mapp's, calls this view "paranoid." Kaplan, who is white, chooses his phrases slowly and with painstaking care. "I believe the Board of Trade is acting in good faith," he said. "On the other hand, the realization that more summer jobs would mean a quieter summer is not cynical."

Whether beliefs like Mapp's are accurate reflections of fact or not, they represent a major segment of thinking among Washington's poor. And these perceptions are readily accepted by young blacks; those with no jobs and plenty of time on their hands.

Carl Contee is principle of Anacostia's Hart Junior High School, where he began as a teacher 18 years ago.

Speaking to a visitor in his office recently he acknowledge that unemployment among young blacks is nearing dangerous levels.

"When I was coming along," Contee recalled, "we saw white goals, like being a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, as Utopia. Then, in the '60s, during Black Awareness, we learned that our own goals, black goals, were not to be ashamed of.

"Of course, some of our more objective thinkers realized that is was still an economic world, and it was still a white-controlled economy.

"Now, our youth are confused and angry. They'd been told that if they stayed in school they'd be able to achieve and succeed. This has just not be true."

In a basement room at Kenilworth Court's recreation center, two young men, both recent graduates of Spingarn High School talked about the problems of getting and keeping jobs. They wouldn't give their names because, they said, they were afraid publicity would hurt their chances for work.

"I'm up at 6 every morning," said one, his green, red and black knit cap pulled snugly down over his brow. "I look at the ads in the paper and take the bus downtown. I make the rounds, employment agencies, government departments, stores, restaurants. Then I get back on the bus and come home."

What do they tell him at these places? "Wait, fill out applications. Wait. Ask me questions. Tell me they'll get in touch with me. They ain't never got in touch with me yet,"

What does he do when he comes back to Kenilworth Courts? A smile. He groped in his jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of green dice, shook them and spilled them on the concrete floor. "This."

His friend had a different story. Since graduating last year he's had, and lost, four government and private jobs. Now he's working on a demolition crew. "I ain't gonna stick with it," he said casually. "It's backbreaking; it'll kill me. It ain't no kind of job. It don't do you no good. You can't work your way up to anything."

Why did he think he couldn't get a job with a future? "Because of the foreigners, man, they work for nothing."

And who was to blame? "The government, man. And it ain't just little D.C. government who's jiving. The big government on the hill is jiving, too. Just look at those big, black limos pulling into the White House for parties and all. My daddy's taxes are paying for that. We ought to knock all them dudes off their jobs. They ain't doing nothing for us."

Everett Payne, a street worker with the recreation department's Roving Leader Program, listened to the two young men and nodded. "These guys stayed in school and graduated and they really believed they'd get something decent," he explained. "It's real disappointing for them now."

Payne, known as "Doc" on the streets, said these two young men had been in trouble with the law when they were younger. "But now they know that it ain't no jive no more; next time it's the big house. So they keep their act clean."

As he left the recreation center, at about 10:30 that night, Payne approached half dozen boys and young men huddled over a pair of dice on the sidewalk.

"Hey man," he told them, "don't do that here.It ain't right. I know you're going to do it, but go somewhere else." Quietly, they got off their knew and drifted away. Payne walked to his car and went home for the night.