Robert and Charleatta Whorton, like hundreds of other people here, are spending the holiday season traveling from one soup kitchen to another trying to get enough to eat.

"It's degrading to an extent," Whorton, a dignified-looking man of 35, said as he waited in a food line. "But it's something you have to do to survive. So you swallow a lot of pride."

There are eight soup kitchens in this once prosperous auto center, feeding an estimated 20,000 people each week. The soup kitchens are so overcrowded, and the hunger problems so great, that Mayor Coleman Young wants to open six more.

The reason is clear to Robert Whorton, an out-of-work welder facing eviction from his apartment on Jan. 8. With no regular income and his unemployment benefits expired, he and his wife have sent their two children to live with relatives because they can no longer support them.

"There are really a lot of people with no place to stay and no place to eat," he said.

This day he and his wife were at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, set up by Franciscan monks 53 years ago at the beginning of the Great Depression. The scene around the Whortons was like the 1930s.

Several hundred people were crowded elbow-to-elbow into the small room. Some were the same kind of society outcasts, unkempt winos and ragged panhandlers, who have made up the soup kitchen's clientele for years.

But many were the "New Poor," neatly dressed men and women in their 30s and early 40s, jobless and hungry. Many had children at their sides.

They lined up along the walls of the room and spilled into the street, waiting for a wholesome looking meal of spaghetti, bread and vegetables and a sack of food to take home. When one chair emptied, two people were ready to fill it.

Each had a hard-luck story.

Some said their unemployment benefits had run out and they had no place else to turn. Others said the places they work operate only two or three days a week and they are unable to support their families on their wages. Others said they'd been cut from various welfare programs, and still others said they simply couldn't make ends meet with welfare payments and food stamps.

One man of 28 said he hadn't been able to find a job for three years and sleeps each night in a different abandoned building. "I'm hungry, so I come here," he said.

A 36-year-old mother of five said she worked at a nearby plant that manufactured hospital garments until it shut down last June. "I used to hear about 'the monks' place' a long time ago, but I didn't ever think I'd have to come here," she said.

She said the $204 unemployment check she receives every two weeks "doesn't leave me money to buy food after I pay all the bills . . . . It gets very stressful. It just worries me all the time. My situation is going downhill every week, and I just wonder where I'll be in six months."

The Capuchin Soup Kitchen is one of the largest and oldest in the Midwest. In 1979 it fed 121,864 people. The 1982 figure will be about 500,000, according to executive director Lewis Hickson.

The clientele also has changed dramatically, he said. "The average age used to be 55. Today it's more like 30 because of the economy and layoffs."

Other soup kitchens and food pantries in the Detroit area report similar increases as the recession deepens and the impact of cuts in federal food programs widens.

The Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center, for example, fed from 200 to 300 people each night a year ago. Now the range is 300 to 500.

At nearby Cass Methodist Church, which feeds 700 people each week, the Rev. Ed Rowe said, "For every person we feed, we turn one away because we don't have any food to give them."

Michigan's economy, so long dominated by the sagging auto industry, is so bad that Gov. William G. Milliken recently declared that a "human emergency" exists in the state, and ordered an unprecedented 40-point plan to help provide food and shelter to the needy this winter.

The crisis is particularly acute in Detroit, where on the same day that Milliken announced his program a man wearing only a T-shirt and pants was found dead in a doghouse.

According to the mayor's office, 25 percent of Detroit's work force is unemployed, the same percentage as in 1933. One in every three residents is on some form of public assistance, a 20 percent increase in three months. One in five families has an income below the federal poverty line, and 6,000 people are homeless.

Few places are in such bad shape, but emergency food programs across the country report dramatic increases in hunger problems, even in cities thought immune from the recession.

"I've been in public service since 1951, and this is the first time we've had a soup kitchen," said Trenton Mayor Arthur Holland.

A relatively unpublicized "food bank movement," financed through private donations, has taken root in churches, synagogues and social service agencies in most major metropolitan areas, including Washington, D.C.

In Tucson, the Rev. Charles Woods, director of the Community Food Bank, said that each day his group supplies emergency food boxes to 150 to 180 needy families, a 55 percent increase over a year ago. The food bank, supported by the United Way and local government, will distribute 2 million pounds of food this year, he said.

In Salt Lake City, Steve Johnson, director of Utahans Against Hunger, said his caseload has more than doubled this year.

"We're seeing a new type of poor here," he said. "They aren't your normal, streetwise poor. A lot of them come from the industrial Midwest and the Northeast. They hear there is work out here. So they load everything up in the back of the car or pickup and head west. They get here and there's no work. Their car breaks down and they run out of money."

In Houston, Rina Rosenberg of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition said demand for emergency food from her group, which operates through 62 food pantries, increased 80 percent during the first eight months of the year, and last month a record 2,356 families received food.

In St. Louis, Bill Donovan, director of the Food Crisis Network, which works through 85 churches and social service agencies, said, "I grew up in the Depression. This is beginning to look depressively like 1929 to me."

Most of the food banks report impressive increases in private donations, but many have trouble meeting needs and have placed limits on how often families can receive food. High unemployment is the most frequently cited reason for the upsurge in need.

But cutbacks in federal food programs also played a key role, officials say. In fiscal 1982 $1.53 billion was cut from the food-stamp program, making 875,000 people ineligible for assistance. Cuts in various nutrition programs, including school lunches, totaled $1.39 billion.

"The real Christmas present Congress and Reagan gave to poor people this year is they won't be able to eat," said Nancy Amidei, director of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group.

Many of the agencies that manage food programs also were hit by other budget cuts. Many had, for example, bolstered their volunteer staffs with workers paid for with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and Community Service Administration funds.

St. Louis' Hunger Hotline, which received 14,000 requests for emergency food last year, lost 20 workers when these programs were cut, according to director Otis Woodard.

When federal drug and alcohol abuse treatment funds were placed in a block grant program, the share going to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center in Detroit dropped 11 percent at a time when alcohol and drug problems were on the increase, officials said.

"The safety net just isn't there," said Capt. John C. MacDonald, administrator of the center. "Our government money is being gradually whittled away. We're stretched beyond our resources."

The Salvation Army operates its soup kitchens in good times and bad. Churches and other groups have opened soup kitchens to respond to the immediate need.

Donald Davis, 40, said he believes they are a godsend. "If it weren't for the churches, a lot of people would be starving," he said as he visited one Detroit soup kitchen earlier this month.

A father of three, he said he hasn't had a regular job since 1979, when he was laid off as an $8.59-an-hour auto parts production worker. He had been getting food stamps and Medicaid benefits, he said, but lost them when he received a workman's compensation grant.

Now he and his wife have applied for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, but in Michigan there is a 45-day waiting period for such benefits.

He said he is three months behind in his rent and that other bills are stacking up. His only income comes from using his car to ferry neighbors around the city.

"I used to say I wouldn't work for under $8 an hour," he said. "Now I'd take anything, but nothing is open."