PORTLAND – It was about 6 a.m., dark and cold, when Brian Gailliot got on the welfare line Friday.

Portland’s General Assistance office wouldn’t open until 8, but the line was already 30 deep when he arrived. A man and woman at the front had been sitting there in folding chairs since 10 p.m. Thursday.

“There’s just not enough work,” said Gailliot, who currently works part time for a temp agency, eats at the local soup kitchen and sleeps in a friend’s apartment. “I haven’t had my own place for a year and a half.”

One in eight Mainers lived below the poverty line in 2010, according to recently released U.S. census data. Maine’s poverty rate hit 12.5 percent in 2010, up from 11.4 percent the year before.

On the streets, the prolonged economic slump is translating into dramatic increases in the number of unemployed people who have exhausted savings and unemployment benefits and are seeking help for the first time at Portland’s food pantries, soup kitchens and welfare offices.

The number of able-bodied men and women seeking General Assistance in Portland to pay for rent, heat or other necessities has nearly tripled in the past four years since the start of the recession. A surge in new applications has contributed to the lines that have overwhelmed the office on Lancaster Street and forced city officials to reassign staff from other operations.

“Folks that are out there (in line) have worked before. They’ve worked their whole lives,” said Aaron Geyer, senior human services coordinator for the Portland Health and Human Services Department. “They just can’t find work right now.”

Maine is known for its chronic rural poverty. Washington County, for example, had the highest poverty rate in the state in 2009 — 19 percent.

But a closer look at census data also reveals growing concentrations of poverty in Maine’s more urban areas, according to Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy. Poverty is defined as an individual earning less than $11,139 a year and a family of four earning less than $22,314.

Maine now has seven census tracts — population areas or neighborhoods — with more than 40 percent of residents in poverty. That compares to just two such tracts, known as “extreme poverty tracts,” a decade ago.

The extreme poverty tracts include three areas of Lewiston with poverty rates as high as 67 percent. Two tracts are in Penobscot County and include the Indian Island reservation, where the poverty rate is 49 percent. And the list includes two neighborhoods in Portland — Bayside and Parkside — with poverty rates as high as 55 percent.

“It is a little surprising to me that you would see over 50 percent of a population in Cumberland County in poverty,” Martin said. “It’s one of the highest-wealth counties.”

The weak economy and increasing poverty are bringing as many as 150 people a day to the Portland General Assistance office. The lines started forming earlier and earlier this summer and fall after people at the end of the lines were told to come back the next day.

Other factors are contributing, too, such as a growing number of immigrants who are waiting for asylum and don’t qualify for other aid, and cuts in federal and state assistance programs such as food stamps and MaineCare.

“The burden really is going back to the General Assistance program,” said Robert Duranleau, the city’s director of social services.

Portland’s welfare office, which had vacant positions at the same time the lines were swelling, is now shifting workers from other departments to help process applications, Duranleau said.

The lines also are a sign of the financial pressures on the city. Portland’s General Assistance budget, which is partly paid by the state, doubled in the past five years, from $3.4 million to $6.8 million in the most recent fiscal year.

Not only are jobs scarce, but the stagnant housing market has made it harder for the poor to find vacant and affordable apartments, officials said.

The city’s homeless shelters have been overflowing at record rates. In September, 384 men, women and children spent at least one night in an emergency shelter here, a 14 percent increase from the year before. The family shelter has seen a 42 percent increase and for much of the summer had to place families in hotel rooms because the shelter was full.

Nearly 30 percent of the people in the family shelter have never been homeless before, according to the city.

Angela Soto and her fiance, Richard Patino, moved to Portland from the Damariscotta area three months ago after they both lost their jobs. They waited about a month for a spot to open up in the family shelter, using up all their savings to stay in a local motel and eventually getting in line at the General Assistance office to get $12 to buy toiletries.

They spend their days looking for work and hunting for apartments that might qualify for General Assistance vouchers.

“Everybody’s losing jobs. It’s just too much,” said Soto, who is 33 years old and has worked for hotels and restaurants.

They hope to be out of the shelter by Christmas and say it’s especially hard for children. Six families on their floor share one bathroom and one kitchen.

“It really hurts. I’m the man and I’m supposed to take care of this,” said Patino, 32.

Gailliot has experience working for fish processors and construction companies. He has skills, references and no criminal record, he said, adding, “I don’t even drink.” He has landed jobs but hasn’t had steady work since getting laid off from a seafood plant a couple of years ago.

“It never lasts,” he said. “The work stops.”

Except for one sleepless night in the adult shelter, he has stayed with friends around the city who are struggling almost as much as he is. “Barely any of them have a job,” he said.

In addition to his part-time temp job, Gailliot often joins the early morning lines for day labor jobs. Most of the people who show up go away disappointed.

“I went down there about 10 times over the last two weeks, but only worked once,” he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]