Until recently, James Isner had always been able to work enough to support himself. Now, he says, welfare is the only way he can stay afloat financially.

With his unemployment compensation used up, his savings almost gone and neck injuries from back-to-back automobile accidents keeping him sidelined, Isner is applying for General Public Assistance, a Maryland welfare program designed to help the working poor who are temporarily disabled. It gives maximum grants of $205 a month plus $105 in food stamps and medical assistance to working-age individuals with short-term medical or mental problems that prevent them from holding a job.

Isner said he hasn't worked since last February, when his temporary job with the U.S. Postal Service ended. "I'm trying to apply for any {aid} I can get."

Now, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is proposing to make it harder for people like Isner to get assistance. As a way to ease Maryland's financial problems and trim its soaring welfare rolls, Schaefer seeks to tighten eligibility requirements for the program and restrict the number of recipients.

A legislative review committee is expected to consider the proposal at a hearing Monday.

"We are trying to make a change that would do the least amount of damage," said Clarence Brown, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.

But welfare-rights advocates, who say General Public Assistance goes to the "poorest of the poor," said the new restrictions will do a great deal of harm. Beneficiaries, most of whom are men, have such problems as AIDS-related diseases, heart ailments, mental illness and alcoholism, and are not eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

"There are situations where people have a need and can't do any better," said Irvin Conway, president of Maryland Welfare Rights, an organization that is fighting Schaefer's proposed cuts in benefits. "Many of them will be forced back on the streets. Many will be out there begging."

Many people getting General Public Assistance rely on it for money for food or shelter, for drug or alcohol rehabilitation and for medication until they can return to work or qualify for Social Security disability benefits. It can take a year to begin receiving Social Security benefits.

Recipients of General Public Assistance must have an income of less than $2,500 a year and must have a physical or mental problem that prevents them from working for at least 30 days. Under the new proposal, the illness would have to be disabling for at least six months.

General Public Assistance is now an entitlement program, meaning that everyone who qualifies for benefits is entitled to receive them. The governor seeks to limit spending to $44 million, which would mean that about 6,500 people who qualified for benefits would be turned away during the current fiscal year. Next year, 8,800 qualified people would be denied benefits.

Both new applicants and people who are seeking extensions in their benefits would be affected by the rule change, which would take effect March 1.

The state would save $4.1 million this year and $20.9 million next year if the changes are made.

Robert Everett, 50, who is homeless and has cirrhosis, said he is no longer able to do the construction work and scavanging that used to bring in a meager income.

Without General Public Assistance, "I would be afraid to think of what would happen," said Everett, who lives with three others in an abandoned house in Bowie. "I don't want to box myself in saying what I would do. I'm not going hungry. It's as simple as that."

For one 26-year-old with AIDS, the welfare program has meant money for medical care, money to keep him in an apartment and for food, which he supplements with free meals at a Prince George's County church.

Without state aid, "I would just go from hospital to hospital and the bills would just end up being unpaid," said the former restaurant manager. "When I get sick enough to go on Social Security, then I go on that."

General Public Assistance also helps offset the cost of drug rehabilitation for several clients at Reality Inc. in Laurel, a residential facility.

A 29-year-old who lost his job as a floor layer in October because of his drinking and drug use got on General Public Assistance a month ago so he could afford treatment. If state had turned him down, he probably would be dead by now, he said.