Mayors and state health officials gathered here yesterday to describe the nation's dependence on soup kitchens and public shelters as local governments and charities try to house, heat and feed a growing number of homeless people.

At an emergency meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors regarding shelter for America's poor, mayors told of schools, recreation centers, trailers and churches being pressed into service as shelters for the coming winter. Newly unemployed Americans, combined with large numbers of former mental patients, were swelling the number of people needing help, they said. For the first time, in several cities, mayors report that charity kitchens are rationing food because of the crush of requests.

"I've been in public service since 1951 and this is the first time we've had a soup kitchen," Arthur Holland, mayor of Trenton, N.J., said of a new city-run facility. "More and more people are coming to the mayor's office asking for a place to stay at night."

Throughout the country, mayors report the same crisis stories; overwhelming increases in citizen requests for help in paying fuel bills, rent and food.

"The crisis is beyond the city's capacity to respond," said Audrey Rowe, director of social services for the District. Rowe said the city is encouraging citizens to donate food, blankets and space in their homes for the homeless by contacting the church-run Luther Place in downtown Washington.

Housing and food problems are causing cities to seek unusual means of help.

In Kansas City, ministers are appealing to their congregations to share their homes with the needy, with the city offering to pay part of the homes' heating bills as an inducement.

A trailer, situated on land donated by Goodwill Industries, is set to open Dec. 1 to give emergency nighttime shelter in Newark. "Our city hospital said they will no longer be the dumping ground for people who need shelter," said Dennis Cherot, director of Newark health and welfare department.

In Denver, increased demand forced the Catholic archdiocese to open a former high school as a shelter for 400 people. "There's always been the capacity to handle the street people," said Armando Atencio, manager of Denver's social services. "But there's a new population. We're seeing people with master's degrees and doctoral degrees, but just out of luck."

Food problems are universally severe, the mayors reported.

"Two years ago, the Volunteers of America food bank in Everett [Wash.] handled 320 familes in November," said Fontaine Fulghum, of the national VOA office. "This month, 1,300 families have signed up for food." Unemployment in Everett is 12 percent, Fulghum said.

Nancy Amadei, director of the Food Research Action Council, said, "As wonderful as the churches and charities are, traveling from food kitchen to soup line is no way to feed a family 21 meals a month." She urged the conference to press Congress to restore food stamp and Medicaid cuts. "If Franklin Delano Roosevelt could say he saw one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed, today, we see one-fifth of the nation with the same problems."

City officials across the country said they are trying to pass laws forbidding evictions and utility shut-offs during the winter, and are appealing to the airlines and wholesale food terminals for unused food and to hospitals for used blankets and linens.

In Cleveland, the Mayor's Committee on Aging is working with the East Ohio Gas Co. to distribute wool and felt hats to the elderly in an attempt to ward off hypothermia, a chief killer during frigid temperatures.

Health officials reported that increases in suicides in Baltimore and infant deaths in Michigan are tied to the recession. Several health officials also warned that the nation can expect more fire deaths this winter, as those whose gas and electricity are already shut off depend on space heaters, stoves and candles for warmth.

"Many people in our city actually froze to death last winter ," said John Waller, director of public health in Detroit. "We will be seeing that, and many people starving to death" this winter.

While mayors and social workers stressed the new ways their cities are responding to the need for housing, most looked to Washington for help. "The stark reality is that the private resources are not sufficient," said Melanne Verveer, of the U.S. Catholic Conference. "We're looking for any support the lame duck Congress can give us to get through this winter."

Ernest Morial, mayor of New Orleans, who said every bed in the city's rescue missions and emergency shelters is full, noted, "We're not overlooking local initiatives, but there are harsh days ahead and more unemployed than ever to handle." Added Tom Cooke, mayor of East Orange, N.J., "This is a cry to the federal government to help. We are in dire need to help the homeless people roaming our streets."