One month after the District government, citing budget shortages, stopped serving evening meals at its shelters for homeless adults, soup kitchens and other groups providing meals to the needy say they're straining to feed greater numbers during what used to be their summer slump.

"I really dread the winter; we're going to have people going hungry," said social worker Deborah Patterson, who counsels the homeless on Capitol Hill.

"We just can't meet a huge increase real quick," said the Rev. John Adams, director of So Others Might Eat in downtown Washington. SOME now serves about 1,200 breakfasts and lunches every day, Adams said, and its budget provides for increasing that by up to 10 percent a year.

"If it's much more than that, we are straining our volunteers and dining room to the limit," he said.

On May 1, the city stopped providing or paying for evening meals at 16 emergency adult shelters, which combined hold more than 1,700 beds. City officials said budget cutbacks forced them to eliminate the meals, a standard feature at the shelters for more than a decade.

Janice Woodward, special assistant to the Commission on Social Services, said ending dinners at the shelters will save the city from $200,000 to $300,000 a year. She said the city is not obligated to provide meals under Initiative 17, a voter-approved law mandating basic homeless services.

"When you try to offset a deficit across the board in all departmental programs, that is a lot of money," Woodward said.

But private meal providers say the city's move came without warning and left them struggling to fill the gap.

We've had no cooperative relationship with the city on this decision" to cut meals, said Victoria Roberts, program coordinator for the Church of the Brethren Soup Kitchen on Capitol Hill.

"We're really appalled."

Alan Ritson, supervisor of the Salvation Army's food van, which nightly distributes food to the homeless downtown, said in the past month he has seen a 25 percent increase in demand.

If this continues, his group will have to appeal to area churches to increase their food contributions, he said.

Soup kitchen operators at the Church of the Brethren say more food is being consumed now even though daily attendance is less than in the winter.

"I see people taking away food {at lunch} for their evening meal," said Roberts. "Some say, 'We're bumming off you.' "

Ilene Leventhal of Potomac, who with several neighbors has been bringing more than 100 home cooked meals to Lafayette Square every Sunday for months, said the homeless now run to her van when she arrives and tug on it when she leaves. "Since the shelters no longer feed them, we are getting people from other areas and we cannot physically handle them. If we had 150 meals we would still run out."

The city's decision to stop shelter meals came amidst continuing clashes between advocates for the homeless and the District over care for the homeless. Advocates have repeatedly sued the city to upgrade shelters and services, and the city has been fined $1.5 million by the courts for failing to make improvements. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council has ordered $18 million in cuts this fiscal year and next in its human services budget.

Homeless advocates also are continuing efforts to persuade a judge to order the city to resume funding for meals.

A spokesmen for the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, which manages three city shelters, said his group has reworked its budget to find the $40,000 it needs this year to continue serving dinners. But director Jack White said the group is straining.

"All of us operate at a very marginal level now," he said.

One private provider expressed more optimism, citing recent action by the D.C. Council to encourage more food donations by caterers, hotels and restaurants.

Robert Egger, director of D.C. Central Kitchen, said his organization will distribute about 80 tons of donated and reprocessed food to soup kitchens, twice what was donated when it opened a year ago.

"There's enough food thrown away in this city to feed quite a few people," he said.

New private groups also are surfacing and more churches are getting involved. In recent weeks members of St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill and the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church have started preparing several dozen brown bag lunches and distributing them in the neighborhood on Sunday afternoons, the day soup kitchens in the city are closed.

Nancy Hartnagel, one of the organizers, said she hopes other churches will join in. "It's one area in which you can do a little something," she said. "It's not that hard to do."