As the last rays of autumn sun fade into night, a crowd begins to gather in front of a small, red-brick house located on the fringe of Silver Spring's bustling business district.

The men, women and children are part of a ragtag army of street dwellers and urban poor in Montgomery County who have been showing up in record numbers in recent months seeking a hot meal from the Shepherd's Table, a nonprofit soup kitchen.

Those who run the service have been overwhelmed by the size of the crowds and yesterday they appealed to the county government for help, including a counselor, in dealing with even greater numbers that are expected when winter arrives in the next few weeks.

"Somehow this population has slipped through the safety net, and it needs help through more services from the county goverment and other community organizations," said Warren Zork, president of the board of Shepherd's Table.

The nonprofit group, made up of more than 400 volunteers from church groups and community organizations, opened the kitchen in 1983, offering one hot meal a night to anyone who showed up.

But the crowd, which initially averaged about 12 a meal, has since grown to an average of 90 a meal, with as many as 140 people jamming the tiny Bonifant Street house on some nights, said Wardell Townsend, a Shepherd's Table spokesman.

The trend also has surfaced in Gaithersburg, at the only other similar soup kitchen in the county, and county officials acknowledged yesterday that the county's once "invisible poor" are seeking services in far greater numbers.

"An increasing number of people are requiring food assistance because of increasing restrictions on food stamps and because of tightened restrictions on federal public assistance programs," said Charles L. Short, director of the county Department of Family Resources.

Mary E. Canapary, manager of the Lord's Table soup kitchen in Gaithersburg, said the facility opened a year ago last month, serving about 35 people a day. Now it averages 80 people per meal, she said. "We're having many more families with young children than we ever expected. It's mostly people who are just getting by."

The Shepherd's Table group conducted a detailed survey of soup kitchen users, the first of its kind in Montgomery County, and found that 75 percent receive no goverment benefits even though they probably qualify for them.

"A number of these people could be moved on and out of here if they received the necessary social services," said Zork.

Elizabeth Farrell, a social worker, said many who use the kitchen could become independent if they received proper counseling and training, but are extremely reluctant to seek help on their own.

As a result, the group has asked the county to provide two part-time caseworkers to help clients apply for public assistance and part-time job counselors and social workers to help them find housing and work.

The group also asked the county to open another soup kitchen.

Since it began, Shepherd's Table has provided 41,437 meals on a $45,000 annual budget, serving 32,562 men, 6,167 women and 2,708 children. Sixty-two percent of the men are under 35. Over two-thirds attended high school, one-third graduated and 10 percent hold college degrees, the survey found.

More than half the white males surveyed and one-third of the black males said they have been treated in mental health clinics. One-third suffer from acute or chronic illnesses.

The kitchen opens at 6 p.m to a line of people winding down the street and waiting for a meal that might include instant mashed potatoes, processed meats or stew, soup, canned fruit and vegetables.