They begin arriving about 6 p.m. and gather on a porch not far from the antiques stores and tourist gift shops of old town Leesburg. Some are families struggling to pay the rent; others are unemployed or homeless men who have no other place to go.

When the doors open at 6:15, they head in to two dining rooms, where the tables are decorated with fresh-cut flowers and the air is filled with the smell of baked chicken, chili or other hot foods.

In a few minutes, volunteers serve the visitors free of charge, no questions asked.

It's called Daily Bread, and it is the first daily soup kitchen in recent memory to operate in Loudoun County, one of the state's most affluent counties and an area known more for its horse farms and 18th-century charm than for its rural poor.

Daily Bread, which opened recently in a refurbished house near Leesburg's historic courthouse square, is among dozens of programs that have sprouted in the Washington area's outer suburbs in response to the growing number of homeless and unemployed people in rural areas from Loudoun, about 45 miles west of the District, to St. Mary's County in Maryland, about 40 miles south of the city. In Loudoun, as in other communities across the countryside, some of the homeless people have fled crowded inner-city shelters. But social workers and others say that by far most are local residents who have been pushed into homelessness by a tough economy that has dried up local jobs.

"There's people {here} that are in need, just like everywhere else," said James, 41, an unemployed construction worker in Leesburg who eats occasionally at Daily Bread. He would not give his last name. "There's no work around."

His and other stories are becoming familiar to Lynne Donovan, an organizer of Daily Bread, a nonprofit organization that has served more than 500 meals since the kitchen opened last month. But Donovan, who renovated the house with help from area churches and volunteers, said she recognizes there is only so much she can do.

"I hear the same stories many, many times," she said. "It's really hard to say good night to people when you know they're not going anywhere; they're not going home."

Similar assistance programs have opened recently in Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles south of the District, where a coalition of churches has set up a year-round shelter for homeless people from Spotsylvania, Stafford and King George counties; and in St. Mary's, where two soup kitchens opened last year.

"It's serious. It's endemic," Fay Lohr, director of Virginia's Office of Community Services, said of the rise in homelessness in rural communities. "It's just more and more people."

In Loudoun, 211 people received help from the state-funded shelter for homeless people last year, an increase of nearly 42 percent from 1991, according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Local officials estimate that as many as 30 homeless men now live along the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail, which cuts through the county.

In Maryland's Charles County, 1,389 people received shelter last year, a 74 percent increase from the previous year, according to a recent report by Maryland's Department of Human Resources. Significant increases in the number of those seeking shelter also were reported in the state's Calvert, Frederick and Washington counties.

Overall, more than 49,700 people received shelter in Maryland last year, nearly a 16 percent increase from 1991. A survey of 78 Virginia shelters by the Virginia Coalition for the Homeless found that 92,000 people got shelter last year, up nearly 10 percent from the year before.

"This is only the people who found their way to shelters," said Sue Capers, president of the coalition, a private, nonprofit group. "We don't even attempt to count people who are under a bridge, in a park or in a parked car."

Rural governments across the area have increased social services spending since homelessness began worsening in the mid-1980s. But some officials say they fear that with budgets tightening and the number of homeless people continuing to rise, they won't be able to keep pace with the problem.

In Loudoun, for example, social services spending on programs for homeless people rose from $3,000 in 1987 to $169,000 in 1990. But budget cuts this fiscal year reduced spending on such programs to $120,000, said Ronald Eamich, acting director of the county's Department of Social Services.

Meanwhile, two privately operated Loudoun shelters are expected to open in the coming months. A transitional shelter, a county-funded facility that opened less than two years ago and holds about 40 people, is full.

In Loudoun and other rural areas, the primary reason for increased homelessness has been the downturn in the construction industry, Maryland and Virginia officials said.

"Poor people are the first hit and the last to recover," said Harriet Goldman, director of homeless services for Maryland's Department of Human Resources. "We may see a greater increase in '93."

But rising rents and a lack of affordable housing, common problems in the District and surrounding suburbs, are beginning to increase homelessness in more rural areas, officials said. Low-income people in outer counties increasingly are competing for housing with affluent commuters willing to drive 50 or more miles to work. The more traditional reasons for homelessness, including substance abuse and mental illness, also are factors.

"We're seeing an increase in individuals and an increase in families," said Bert Otts, assistant director of social services in Charles County. "It's all over the country."

Stories told by homeless people in Loudoun reflect that.

James, the Leesburg laborer, said he hasn't worked in the three years since his car broke down and the construction industry in Loudoun went sour. He said that there are few jobs available for him in the county and that he hasn't been able to look for work elsewhere because there is no public transportation. He has lived with a series of relatives this winter and said he expects to be out on the streets when the weather warms up.

"If I had work and an automobile . . . I could pick myself up and maybe do something," he said. "Ever since work slowed up, I haven't had work. It's not a good feeling."

Mellissa Lorton, 30, said she became homeless after having four children, breaking up with her boyfriend and developing a drinking problem. Although she was making $7 an hour as a hospital cleaner, it wasn't enough to pay the $450 or so needed to rent an apartment in Loudoun, she said.

"I was making halfway decent money, but it wasn't enough," said Lorton, who moved into Loudoun's transitional housing center last year. "I wanted to get on my feet and get my life going."

In places such as Loudoun and Fauquier counties, where construction work was abundant in the 1980s, there are people, usually men, who still come from other states looking for work, said Michelene Hostetter, the housing director for the Fauquier County Housing Corporation.

"They come to Northern Virginia looking for a pot of gold," Hostetter said. "We tell them there isn't one and to go home."