With the economy cooling along with temperatures this year, the holiday season is looking none too bright for some Howard County residents: The county's welfare caseload has risen dramatically while donations to charities such as the Salvation Army have dwindled.

According to social service workers, a new group of needy people is seeking help from government and private agencies because of the souring economy.

"It's new people. I can tell by the case numbers. It's people who've lost their jobs, gotten laid off, something has happened," said Betty Eggleston, who manages the welfare office at the county Department of Social Services.

"This most recent group of people who have fallen on hard times, they're struggling like mad to keep up," said Ann Ryder, of the county's Information and Referral service. "It's terribly humiliating to them too. They're not used to it."

"It's like something seems to be falling apart for these people," Eggleston said. "They come in asking for help with rent or because they're being evicted or the gas and electric has been turned off."

According to Eggleston, as of the end of October, there were 652 families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, up 23 percent from the same time last year. (In Howard County, as in the rest of the country, the primary recipients of AFDC are households headed by single mothers.)

Requests for food stamps, general public assistance and other aid also appear to be rising, Eggleston said.

The same increase has been noticed statewide. State officials say that 70,000 families were receiving AFDC in July, up 10 percent from the previous year -- but the trend has been more pronounced in suburban counties such as Howard. The phenomenon is being studied by the State Department of Human Resources.

Traffic at local food banks has increased as well.

"During October, we served 74 walk-ins at the food bank. So far, in November, already we've had 51," said Dorothy Moore, executive director of the Community Action Agency of Howard County. "Today {Tuesday} alone we had 23 people. For us, those are incredible numbers.

"The primary reason for all this is people are being laid off," Moore said. "Our lobby is filled with people being laid off."

Other indicators suggest that the county's economy is ailing. Although unemployment remains far below the state rate of about 4.5 percent, it has increased significantly since last year. County unemployment is 3.1 percent, up from 2.4 percent last year.

Layoffs are expected to double in the region this quarter, according to Manpower Inc. During the last three months of last year, about 6 percent of employers surveyed in the Baltimore-Washington region anticipated layoffs. This year, according to Manpower, 12 percent expect to lay workers off.

For people like Art Howard, a local official of the Salvation Army, this economic "slowdown, recession, slump" -- call it what you will -- has a human face.

"I was delivering some Thanksgiving turkeys today," he said Tuesday. "One to a family with nine kids where there was a layoff, another to a household with 17 people -- one family had gotten evicted and moved in with the other."

The Salvation Army, which provides help for the poor year round, coordinates a group of charities and agencies that annually provide the needy with Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas food and toys. About 500 turkeys have already been provided this year, Howard said.

Scrambling to deliver those turkeys and to juggle the requests that come in daily, Howard knows dozens of hard luck stories.

"We had another situation where a lady was living out of her car -- we finally got her an address yesterday," Howard said. "Her husband had walked out on her. She came into this area looking for a job, ran out of money and got stranded.

"Another one," he said. "A couple called this morning, the father was working for the government in Washington and he and 120 people were laid off."

Howard said he has noticed the effects of the economy not so much in the rising number of people seeking help but in the dwindling number of people offering it.

To assist individuals like the stranded woman or the laid-off federal worker, the Salvation Army depends on donations of food, funds, toys, clothes and other items. But the giving, this year, has been skimpy.

"Last year at this time I had $15,000," Howard said. "This year, so far, I've got $700.

"I was talking to a construction company fellow who usually brings us 30 or 40 turkeys at Thanksgiving and then at Christmas," Howard said. "He says now he can only afford 18 or 20, he's got to cut it in half. These are people who have been very good to us; they'd do it if they could."

Because of the shortage of funds, the Salvation Army has had to prioritize the names on its list of families to receive holiday help.

"People who come in at the last minute are going to have to take whatever's here," Howard said. "But we're going to try very hard to see that no one goes without."