The weather worsens, a recession looms and local governments begin their annual scramble to find enough space to house the homeless on frigid nights. But if the struggle is similar, this year the tactics are different.

In the District, unlimited shelter and services no longer are guaranteed; city officials say they will focus on increased services and counseling, and restrict the amount of time that the homeless can remain in shelters.

Suburban governments are trying new strategies, including paying families on the edge to keep them from becoming homeless, to try to lead more people to permanent housing solutions.

The emphasis is on getting people out of shelters, motels and church basements and aggressively encouraging the homeless to work toward improving their situations and moving on.

"The numbers of people falling into homelessness is really putting pressure on the shelters to help people and move them out so they can serve more people," said Ann Sherrill, director of government relations for Action for the Homeless, a Maryland advocacy group.

"That is really the emphasis of every program, to both give an immediate response, a place to stay, but then to work with individuals and families in helping them to become self-sufficient," she said.

Advocates for the homeless generally applaud the goals, but they worry about the short-term effects. Worsening economic conditions and a lack of affordable housing in the region could mean more of the homeless will be pushed too quickly from the shelters onto the streets, they say.

They are most concerned about the District's new law limiting the time a homeless family can stay at a shelter to 90 days, and an individual to 30 days. The law, which will go into effect as soon as Mayor Marion Barry signs it, replaces Initiative 17, which guaranteed unlimited shelter and assistance to anyone who requested it.

"If the 90-day rule {for families} is enforced, it will be totally unworkable and burdensome for families," said Tony Russo, executive director of Conserve, a consortium of nonprofit groups that provide shelter and low-cost housing.

"Some of these women have health problems, substance abuse problems. They don't have their high school diplomas. Now service providers are being asked to wave a magic wand, and in 30 to 90 days turn these lives around. Lives will fall through the cracks," he said.

Angela Meekins, 26, is an example of someone who needs time to pull things together for herself and her five children, who range in age from 8 months to 7 years. Meekins, who receives public assistance, was evicted from her apartment in September for nonpayment of rent.

Since then, she and her children have been living at the shelter sponsored by the Community for Creative Non-Violence at Second and D streets NW. Meekins is saving her money and searching for an apartment she can afford, but she doesn't know when she will be able to leave the shelter.

"I'm looking for a place," Meekins said, adding that because the shelter is there, "I'm okay and {the children} are doing fine."

Though the District's new law calls for increased counseling and services to help homeless people find permanent housing, advocates said they doubt that the financially struggling city will provide them.

"Those provisions {for services} were already in place" in the old law, said Carol Fennelly, of CCNV. "If they didn't implement them before, they are not going to do it now."

In the suburbs, where there has been a steady increase in the numbers of homeless families and individuals, officials are requiring those seeking emergency beds to enter into service contracts. Under these agreements, the homeless pledge to get help with drug or alcohol addiction, if that is a problem, or to undergo mental health counseling or money management training. They often are required to seek a source of income, whether it's a job or government benefits, so they can pay for permanent housing.

Those who refuse to comply are usually turned away from shelters or are offered no more than a cot on extremely cold nights.

"The trend in Alexandria is . . . toward a more assertive expectation with the people who come in," said Gary Cyphers, the city's director of human services. He said the city's 223 beds are often filled. "The real expectations {are} that the time spent in the shelter will be seeking employment training, finding a job, getting children into child care, seeking benefits, dealing with child abuse."

In Prince George's County, where on any given night 1,000 homeless people are vying for 400 shelter beds, social service workers said there will be less of an emphasis on such services as family counseling or parenting skills and greater emphasis on finding shelter residents an income source -- a job, benefits, or child support.

Shelter residents will continue to be steered toward substance abuse counseling or mental health programs if needed, social workers said. The financially strapped county also will begin using volunteers instead of staff to operate its emergency winter shelters, which open only when the temperature falls below freezing.

"We are aware that with limited resources, we have to be real specific in how we use those resources so that we can be effective with what we have," said Christine Fel-ker, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Social Services.

Montgomery County officials are considering a new system to have each county shelter specialize in services for the homeless, including centers for people with drug problems or mental illnesses.

In Fairfax, officials are increasingly trying to help families and single adults before they become homeless. The county plans to implement a tenant-assistance program to provide grants to people needing help with their rent. They also have a program to lend eligible families or individuals enough money to pay three months of past due rent or mortgage and six months of current bills as a way to keep them off the streets.

The county also will open an additional 30 units of transitional housing, for a total of 90 apartments, where homeless people can stay up to two years while they get intensive counseling.