Until a year ago, the outhouse about 20 paces from the back door of Addie Thompson's Halifax County, N.C., home worked just fine, she says. But today, the weathered wooden structure is overgrown with weeds and leans like it's about to fall over.

"You can't even use it anymore," says Thompson, 83, who is confined to a wheelchair. Sitting in a small front room dominated by family photographs, she explains that she, her daughter and niece now have another arrangement: a bucket that "we just take and throw out in the woods."Their modest home has been targeted by a fledgling state initiative with an aim both ambitious and, critics say, long overdue: seeing that North Carolina residents get indoor bathroom facilities linked to sewer systems or septic tanks.

At a time when the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area and other parts of the state have become a beacon to high-tech companies, tens of thousands of North Carolinians still live in homes with either outhouses or "straight-piping" -- toilets that empty into a nearby ditch or stream.

Their situation underscores the persistence of harsh poverty in parts of the state, but it also presents a public-health danger from contaminated groundwater and streams.

The 1990 Census identified nearly 50,000 households in North Carolina without adequate plumbing, among the most in the nation.

But based on new, door-to-door surveying under way in western counties, state environmental health officials project the true figure is significantly larger, perhaps as high as 200,000.

"The scary thing is how many of them there still are," says Greer Beaty of the North Carolina Commerce Department's Division of Community Assistance, which is coordinating the new initiative.

The program is attempting to tackle the issue a few counties at a time. The initial focus is on Halifax and Mitchell counties, where, in exchange for $250,000 in financial help, local officials have pledged to marshal volunteer labor and donated equipment -- and eliminate outhouses and straight-piping within two years.

It remains to be seen whether that goal is realistic.

State Commerce Department officials acknowledge that they have a lot to learn before expanding the program. They hope to add 10 counties next year.

One obstacle noted by Richardson and others is that many homes eligible for help under the new initiative are so dilapidated that they can't even support indoor plumbing.

Homeowners who are helped by the new program won't be required to pay for materials but will be encouraged to donate their labor, both at their home and other sites in the community.

In some western counties, where environmental officials are now surveying, the true figure for unconnected households may be as high as 25 percent, says Terrell Jones of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Both straight-piping and outhouses can produce serious health problems, said Johanna Reese of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. If people drink, swim or fish in rivers contaminated with human waste, they can contract ear, nose and throat infections, as well as urinary and gastro-intestinal problems. The risks are similar with outhouses if human waste seeps into the groundwater and shows up in drinking wells.

Under North Carolina law, outhouses are legal if homeowners obtain a permit.