Many of the nation's mayors flatly rejected President Reagan's call for a freeze on domestic spending yesterday, calling instead for an old-fashioned federal effort to provide housing, emergency food and billions of dollars in public works jobs.

"There's a crisis out there, but you wouldn't know it from listening to the president's speech last night," said Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which began its winter meeting here yesterday.

"He identified the problems, but he offered no solutions. People are hungry in this country, and yet he talks about cutting the domestic budget. He's blind to reality."

By contrast, the executive committee of the National Governors' Association sounded a note of cautious cooperation with Reagan's plans.

Utah Gov. Scott Matheson (D), the association chairman, said the states would accept a freeze on domestic spending as long as it meant no overall reductions in about $90 billion in federal aid.

"Level funding is a fair way to do it" in times of austerity, Matheson said, but he added that while the states were prepared to absorb the effects of inflation, they could not accept actual dollar reductions.

"Further cuts would be devastating to states struggling to balance their own recession-ravaged budgets," he said.

In recent months the mayors have talked mainly about holding the line on urban aid programs, but they were far more aggressive yesterday, with some insisting that Reagan trim at least $15 billion from the defense budget before cutting social programs further.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson (D), for example, said "the administration has been harsh and cruel" in failing to help the growing number of homeless people looking for jobs out west. Other mayors from Nashville to Santa Ana, Calif. complained about people sleeping in cars, tents and under bridges.

Wilson dismissed Reagan's frequent criticism that public works jobs are only a temporary band-aid. "We're so desperate now that a 'quick fix' sounds awfully good," he said.

"The president acts as if there's something sinful in the federal government becoming directly involved with providing jobs," said Detroit's Young. "Reagan talked about retraining people to find jobs--but where are they going to go to find jobs? Unemployment is up in Dallas and Houston as well as Detroit."

Young, who wants more stockpiled food made available to the soup kitchens springing up in large cities, said that Reagan's proposal is "actually a freeze on only 25 percent of the budget, the domestic part. He's not freezing the defense budget, what he's freezing is food stamps."

Matheson and Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (R) also criticized Reagan's insistence on an accelerated defense buildup. Thompson said he had told Reagan for more than a year that "the rate of increase on defense should be taken down." Matheson added that "national defense involves more than the defense budget. A sound economy is an important ingredient."

Few mayors seemed concerned over being labeled as big spenders. "Just open the purse strings and give us some money," said Mayor Gus Newport of Berkeley, Calif.

"We've cut the budget every year," said Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (D), president of the National League of Cities. "We've raised taxes every year. There comes a point where you can't do any more of that and still keep the libraries open and the streets repaired."