RICHMOND -- Charlotte Roberts has never lived in a house with an indoor restroom. It has never been an easy way of life, but now it's a threat to her health and safety.

She is 67 and needs a walking cane so the relatively short trip to the outhouse has become more than an inconvenience.

The distance from the house to the outhouse is about 30 feet, Roberts said in an interview from her rural Washington County home. "But it's hard for me to get down there and back," she said.

She might not have to make the long walk much longer.

The state of Virginia plans to spend $5 million over the next two years to install indoor plumbing for some of Virginia's most needy citizens, and Roberts said she should qualify.

"We're poor people," said Roberts, who shares a 40-year-old house with her tobacco farmer son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. "We can't afford to have this work done on our own."

Roberts hopes to apply for assistance through People Inc., an Abingdon-based community action agency. But first, People Inc. must secure funding from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Bob Adams, deputy director of the state agency, said local governments, housing authorities and nonprofit groups like People Inc. may apply for up to $250,000 to install indoor plumbing in their localities. The maximum that can be spent on one house is $12,000.

He said he hopes indoor plumbing will be installed in about 1,000 houses as part of the state's program.

"There's been a tremendous amount of interest," Adams said. "In rural areas, this is a real problem. People have been suffering for a long time, and no funds have been set aside specifically for plumbing until now."

According to the 1980 census, Virginia had 79,000 houses without indoor plumbing. Only five states had more. Adams said that number has declined, "but everyone would agree that it's probably still 50,000 or more."

David Mahon, director of the Nelson County Community Development Foundation, said most people would be shocked by the number of Virginians living in turn-of-the-century conditions.

"When I moved here from Montana a year and a half ago, I was surprised a state this prosperous has such a high incidence of people without running water," he said. "I mean, this is 1990. This is America. You have to take a tour of Nelson County. You'd be astounded."

Mahon's foundation, like People Inc., is seeking the maximum $250,000 from the state. Mahon said his organization's informal survey of 1,200 residents found that 37 percent were living in homes without indoor plumbing.

Rob Goldsmith, director of People Inc., said the problem also is widespread in the southwest Virginia counties of Washington, Russell and Dickenson. He said each of those counties in 1980 had about 800 homes without indoor plumbing.

"These houses are generally occupied by extremely low-income people," Goldsmith said. "Most are elderly, and some have lived there all their lives. But now that they're older, they're having trouble dealing with an outhouse."

Mary Osbourne, 72, has lived in the same house near Chilhowie in Washington County her entire life. She has never had an indoor restroom.

"We put in a pressure tank to get water to the kitchen back in '53 and haven't done anything since," Osbourne said. "My husband's had open-heart surgery, and I have a broken ankle and foot now. I'd like to have an indoor bathroom, but we can't do it on our own."

Adams said more than 95 percent of the homeowners expected to receive assistance live in remote areas. He said new restrooms will not be built in houses that appear on the verge of collapse.

"They have to meet minimal standards," Adams said. "Is the flue safe? Is the wiring safe? Is the house weather-tight and structurally adequate? We would be remiss to put public funds into a structure and leave it unsafe."

In some cases, Adams said, the solution will be to obtain funds from other programs to upgrade a house or build an inexpensive replacement.