Thousands of Washington's poorest waited for hours in the cold yesterday outside six city churches to claim free five-pound boxes of government surplus cheese. Many were turned away, empty-handed and angry.

The 18,000 pounds handed out yesterday were the first installment of what eventually is to be a 100,000-pound giveaway in the District, the city's share of 30 million pounds of surplus cheese that will be distributed throughout the country. In all, 3,600 families received cheese yesterday, officials said. But hundreds of others arrived too late.

Though the giveaway was not scheduled to begin until 1 p.m., many city residents began lining up outside the churches from early morning--an expectant crowd of young mothers with infants swaddled in blankets against the biting wind, as well as frail-looking pensioners, many leaning on canes. At some sites, double-parked cars strangled the flow of traffic. As required, those who came bore proof that they qualified for low-income assistance programs such as food stamps or Medicaid.

Some said they had walked as far as two miles or taken as many as four buses to get the processed American cheese, valued at about $11 in grocery stores. People in several lines complained about pushing and shoving. At one site near a bus stop, passengers hopped off the buses to shove their way to the head of the line.

Ninety-year-old Laura Harman, a retired government worker, was one of hundreds standing in a line that extended for three blocks outside First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church at 6th and N streets NW. Harman, who waited for nearly two hours wearing thin, worn shoes, complained that her feet felt frozen. "I can't move them," she said. She tugged her torn woolen gloves.

Harman, who lives in the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW, said she "won't take free meals" offered to the elderly by the government, but found herself forced to accept the free cheese because the government recently informed her that her monthly food stamp allotment would be reduced to $52. With her rent and her payments on her set of false teeth, she said she has $3.10 left at the end of each month.

Angellee Evans, with her 17-month-old infant in her arms, said she thought it was worthwhile waiting outside Purity Baptist Church, 1325 Maryland Ave. NE, for an hour and a half because "cheese is so important to the baby." Evans said she hadn't been able to buy American cheese in the last few weeks because "at over $2 a pound, it's just too expensive."

This was the first time in at least 15 years that the government has made direct food handouts to needy families in the District, said Julius Jacobs, food services director of the city school system. But many others--400 at two of the sites alone--were turned away because the supply had run out by the time they arrived.

"It's wrong to get us out here, freezing cold like this, waiting all this time, and then tell us there ain't no more cheese," said Hannah M. Mathis, a mother of seven, who said she had walked two miles from her home on Anacostia Avenue NE to the First Baptist Church on Sheriff Road but who left disappointed.

"I can't hardly afford to buy cheese any more," she said. "It would have helped a great deal. Whoever asked us to come out should have done better."

Adam Scott, who was coordinating the distribution at First Baptist for the D.C. Department of Human Services, said he telephoned the department at 2:50 p.m. to request a second shipment. "But they told me there was none left," he said.

Even those who did get their cheese were not necessarily pleased.

"This is nothing but a racket," said Artricia Morton, complaining of the lengthy process it took to get the cheese at the Johnson Memorial Baptist Church at 800 Ridge Rd. SE.

"My mother, who is 72 years old, is in there waiting all this time for a five-pound package of cheese. And I took off from my work. I lost $45. I told her I'd rather buy her the cheese . . . . They have people in there who are sick and crippled just hanging on for a five-pound package of cheese."

"It's just a token, it's so minute," said Janice Johnson, a social worker who was helping keep order at Friendship Baptist Church, 900 Delaware Ave. SW. "These people would rather have jobs. If I had my way, I'd take all this cheese to the White House and tell the president to shove it."

Jacobs said the rest of the District's cheese allotment will be distributed beginning today through charity organizations, including Washington Churches for Social Action Food Banks; Crest Community Food Bank; Capital Comunity Food Bank; and Seventh-Day Adventists World Service Food Bank. The D.C. Office on Aging will also distribute some cheese, he said, but there will not be another direct handout like yesterday's.