IT SEEMS as though every winter there is a story to be told about a public housing project in the District that has been without heat or hot water for some ridiculously long time. Well, so far, we're told, the heat works just fine. But some 300 people and possibly more are freezing because the District government has not given them the federal funds they are entitled to have to help pay their heating bills. This is both an appalling and embarrassing situation.

Four or five years ago, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development began giving utility allowances to public housing residents. Federal regulations say that tenants in publicly subsidized housing who pay at least one utility bill are entitled to utility allowances that can be deducted from their monthly rent payment.

HUD officials say they have warned the District's Housing Department "for several years" that it was violating federal regulations by not reimbursing public assistance tenants for those expenses. Bear in mind that these are federal funds. All the District has to do is pass them on to tenants, a duty that would not seem very difficult to carry out. In some cases, the reimbursements amount to only $100, but some tenants may be owed as much as $7,000. According to court papers filed by the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, about 300 public housing tenants are owed about $350,000.

In some cases, tenants have had their heating disrupted for nonpayment of bills that they should not have had to pay entirely on their own. In other cases, families have been living in the cold with the thermostat turned off because they knew they could not afford the bills that would result.

It is difficult enough for the poor to make ends meet without the added headache of not getting the financial help they are entitled to have. And at a time when District government officials are preparing to sing the blues about federal budget cuts, it does not help their argument to have this demonstration of their inability to distribute the federal funds already available.

The District government should move to have the heat turned back on immediately for those tenants whose heating service was disrupted because they did not get the federal funds due them. All those who are owed money have a right to receive that money at once. They deserve better care from a city government that prides itself on how well it treats its disadvantaged residents.