The ground is hard and filled with sharp rocks at Camp Site 466 at Patapsco State Park, so the three boys in the Mutton family have raked huge piles of leaves under the family's two tents.

"I miss couches and chairs," confided Brian, 9, who has also done without his friends, baseball, swimming and other things that mean summer for a suburban boy. For the Mutton family, the two tents are home.

Determined to save enough money to buy their own house, the Muttons moved out of their $450-a-month apartment in Laurel on July 1 and began a nomadic existence, living in state parks. Because state law prohibits campers from staying in a park for more than two weeks, they've already had to move three times.

"It's really sad you have to do this to buy a house," said Donna Mutton, 30, as she scrubbed the family's clothes by hand and hauled the blankets muddied by the near-daily rain to the washhouse, 10 minutes distant. "Everyone knew it was going to be rough."

Fourteen miles away, William Pascoe, a laid-off pipefitter, and his wife, Fawn, 37, who is dying of leukemia, sit in the kitchen of an East Baltimore row house that a former welfare recipient has turned into an emergency food pantry and shelter. She holds a yellow piece of paper informing them that they will be evicted from their house.

Maryland Social Services already gave the Pascoes emergency rent help and they have borrowed all they can from relatives. The couple had to be restrained by friends from selling their modest furniture earlier in the afternoon in what would have been a futile attempt to pay off their $390 in back rent and $631 in unpaid utilities. Although they've struggled over the years, being without a home is something they've never had to face.

They are not alone. A new wave of homeless people is spreading throughout the country, from campgrounds in the South and West filled, not with vacationers, but permanent residents, to overcrowded public shelters and church basements in the nation's cities, to depots, abandoned houses, alleys, construction sites, parking garages, campers and cars.

"From coast to coast, signs of the 1930s reverberate," says Robert M. Hayes, a former Wall Street lawyer who successfully sued the city of New York last winter to provide housing for the city's homeless. Now the attorney for the National Coalition for the Homeless, which estimates at least two million people are without shelter in the United States, he notes, "The soup lines grow. The flophouses fill to overflowing. The park benches become crowded at night, as well as day. The newest token of a failed American dream is a cardboard box."

The homeless are no longer only skid row bums, but include a growing number of women, former blue-collar workers and entire families who no longer can pay rents and mortgages because they've lost their jobs, or in some cases, government benefits. Soaring housing costs, an increase in evictions for failure to pay rent, endless waiting lists for public housing and a slowdown in new building of low-income housing worsen the problem. The number of wanderers also has been swelled by the mentally ill, following the large-scale release of some 126,000 patients from state institutions throughout the 1970s into an outside world little able to deal with them.

In the Washington area, somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 people are believed to be homeless, and three dozen area shelters surveyed have been full every night since the beginning of the year.

As desperate as local shelter workers are finding the situation now, they predict the worst for the upcoming winter, when the homeless are susceptible to hypothermia and other exposure-related ills. "I don't know where the breaking point is," said Ted Ostrom, director of Christ House, a perennially full shelter in Alexandria. "We're meeting now, trying to figure out what to do."

A group of Washington activists has received National Park Service permission to dramatize the plight of the homeless this winter with "Reaganville" tent city encampments and cross-filled graveyards representing exposure victims outside the White House and Capitol, beginning Dec. 21.

The high cost of housing, always a factor in cities, has worsened the problem locally. "Even the apartments in the rough areas, they want $450 and $475 for them," said Frances Fletcher, 31, who was evicted from an apartment in Northeast Washington in May, along with her husband and three children. In other times, when her husband's part-time maintenance work wasn't enough to pay the bills, Frances Fletcher found work as a waitress. Now, she says, "I can't even get on cleaning office buildings at night. The last fast food place that even let me apply, the woman cleaning off tables had been a private secretary."

The Fletchers currently are living in St. Francis Hospitality House, a 20-bed shelter for families opened in February by Catholic Charities in an aged house near Childrens Hospital. The adjustment has been rough. "I keep thinking about the nightmare when we were evicted," she said. "The neighbors were real stupid about it. They picked on the kids, yelled names at them."

The family applied for public assistance to cover a deposit for a new apartment, but have experienced weeks of delay because of confusion over their lack of a permanent address. "We need to get back to normal," she said. Giving a sidelong glance to her husband of 15 years, she said, "By being in a shelter, it makes everything go the wrong way. We've had beefs."

Evictions and foreclosures are up throughout the area, according to local officials. In the District of Columbia, 1,405 individuals and families were evicted in the first six months of this year -- 411 more than in the same period last year, according to James F. Palmer, senior chief deputy U.S. marshal. In the 600 private apartment buildings licensed by Montgomery County, there were 95 evictions in the year ending in June, a 50 percent increase from two years earlier, said Nikki McCausland, of the county's Office of Landlord-Tenant Relations.

In Baltimore, Chief Constable Andrew Slye, whose 28 armed deputies carry tenants' belongings to the street corner, said, "It's a highly emotional situation up here. People are being put out for the first time." Landlords have sought to evict 3,264 more tenants in the first six months of this year than last, when 22,599 eviction notices were issued.

The impact can be seen at Baltimore's 20-bed YWCA shelter, which has been full since the night it opened last fall. "We've turned away 297 women in the first nine months," lamented Jane Christie, its executive director. "We expected bag ladies, but we're finding a new type, a lot of women with college educations. We've had one PhD. The staff is finding former coworkers from other jobs here and that really shakes them up."

The Y is attempting to renovate space for 20 beds for families because "whole families have been living for two and three months in the parking lots near Memorial Stadium," she added.

Even in areas where unemployment is less than the national average, as in Virginia, the police, Traveler's Aid and local churches report a growing number of people without a home. A group of concerned service groups in Alexandria, worried about the coming cold weather, is working to house the homeless in local motels.

There are other, informal indicators of the local increase in homelessness.

The staffs of at least four shelters in Washington and Baltimore say they point the overflow to nearby cars to sleep when the shelter is full. David Kandel, a volunteer at Viva House shelter in Baltimore, is among those leaving his car unlocked for homeless people to sleep in.

"I walk by people taking baths in the (Baltimore's Monument) fountain on my way to work," said Marlene Kingatti, director of the Maryland Food Committee. "They're passing the shampoo."

Interviews with local families finding themselves homeless for the first time and workers at area charities underscore the changing face of the so-called new poor.

"In the past, the homeless were men with alcoholism. It was a personal problem," said Jerry Coursey, coordinator of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. "Now it's younger men and women and the problem is economic."

In some cases, it doesn't take much in today's economy to push someone into poverty. One young woman living at Sarah House, a D.C. shelter, was until recently a liberal arts student at Howard University, working the night shift at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant. When the restaurant closed her shift, she no longer could pay her rent and was evicted. Her attempts to win student aid failed and she was forced to drop out of school. "She's become very quiet and withdrawn," said Cathy St. Clair, the shelter's director. "Humiliated, really."

A report on homelessness in the city of Richmond found a trend in "single men, women and whole families attempting to relocate to the city. They have fled dismal conditions elsewhere, coming from as far away as Washington and Oregon." It is a kind of desperation alarmingly reminiscent of the Depression, according to Valerie Marsh, a Richmond social worker who helped start Emergency Shelter Inc., in February to handle the influx..

With no prospects of obtaining affordable shelter, many families, like the Muttons, have ended up camping out.

Don Ryan, president of the camping division of Kampgrounds of America, in Billings, Mont., said the new "residential" camping began with retirees in travel trailers, but now involves young families with smaller cars and tents. "People are at the campgrounds because they can't afford housing in town. It's happening in the West principally, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming," Ryan said. "We've told our 700 franchisees they ought to separate the two groups vacationers and residents as much as possible."

To the Muttons, the economic forces that have taken them from their Laurel apartment to tents in a state park are bewildering. Although Wesley Mutton earns a decent hourly wage at his printing job in Silver Spring and frequently works overtime, home ownership was simply impossible without the drastic action of moving into tents. They hope to save enough money by the time cold weather arrives to get their belongings out of storage and make a down payment on a modest town house in Columbia.

Camping for necessity, not fun, lost its sense of adventure early. One Eastern Shore camp was a two-hour drive to Wesley Mutton's job. "At Greenbelt State Park , we used to heat up water to take sponge baths," Donna Mutton said. " We'd hold up a blanket around each other so no one could see. You're only supposed to stay five days there, but we stayed 10 and they didn't kick us out."

The boys, Brian, Jimmy, 11, and Jason, 7, have gotten poison ivy and sumac several times, and calamine lotion is used for the spider bites that are more frequent since the zipper on the one tent broke.

"There are thousands of spiders here," she said. "This is just no picnic."