PORTLAND — More than 700 people lined up Wednesday morning to add their names to a new regional waiting list to receive federal housing subsidies in Portland and neighboring cities.

It was the first opportunity to get on the waiting list for Portland Section 8 vouchers in more than three years.

Some waited through the night to be among the first in line, which was hundreds of people deep when Lori Collins arrived at the Portland Housing Authority office at about 9 a.m. The 58-year-old has been unemployed for about 18 months and has relied on an ex-boyfriend for housing while working with an employment case manager and honing her resume.

“I have to keep trying, or else I will end up on the street like a lot of people,” Collins said. “It’s one day at a time.”

The new regional list covers applications for Portland, South Portland and Westbrook. Housing authorities in those communities say regionalizing their lists will simplify administration of federal housing vouchers and increase access while enabling them to purge duplicated names.

But the high demand for the Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, won’t speed up the process of receiving the benefits, or alter the dim prospects of more federal funding being dedicated to the program in Maine.

Section 8 provides housing vouchers covering most of the cost for families and individuals who qualify. Recipients pay 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. Qualification is based on household income and the market rate for housing in a given area.

Some families wait more than three years for a voucher, depending on their individual situation, needs and where they live.

“We’re doing everything we can to encourage our (federal) legislators to understand this (demand) and increase the funding,” said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority. “But the federal budget problems are what they are.”

The across-the-board federal budget cuts that took effect March 1 have whittled the ability of agencies to help people pay for housing, said John Gallagher, executive director of Maine Housing, which oversees housing in all but about 24 Maine communities.

“We’ve absorbed about as much as we can,” Gallagher said.

There are 1,754 vouchers currently issued in Portland. Statewide, about 33,000 people receive federal housing assistance, and about the same number are on waiting lists, Gallagher said. Because of automatic “sequester” federal budget cuts, Maine Housing will hand out about 143 fewer vouchers to new recipients statewide this year — about 24 percent fewer than last year, when roughly 600 new families came off the waiting lists and entered the program.

In South Portland, 367 families or individuals currently receive vouchers. But, after the 5.1 percent cut in this year’s housing authority operating budget, there is no longer funding to cover 23 of those vouchers, a gap that will have to be made up through attrition, said Mike Husley, executive director of the housing authority.

“It’s putting housing authorities in a position where we’re scrambling,” Husley said. “We will serve less people, (and) our waiting list will grow.”

In Portland on Wednesday, the line around the Housing Authority’s Baxter Boulevard office began a full 24 hours before a staffer ushered the first four families through the door.

Some waited overnight through cold and rain to secure their spot in line — by 8 a.m., it curled around the building. Many who waited were immigrants or refugees speaking in their native languages. Some even brought chairs.

Near the head of the line was Laith Alaaldeen, 19, of Westbrook, an Iraqi refugee who said he fled Baghdad for Jordan before coming to the United States five years ago. Alaaldeen, who has hearing and vision problems, said he already receives Social Security, and wants to secure less expensive housing for his family.

“I have to wait,” he said. “It’s better than nothing.”

Cathy Reynolds, 49, of Portland dressed in two jackets and a bright yellow rain poncho to keep warm and dry during the wait. She had to take a day off from her job as a home health aide to sign up. Since she was divorced two years ago, Reynolds said, she’s had to move out of her Gorham home and has struggled to get back on her feet.

“My life stinks,” Reynolds said. “I’m starting at the bottom of the barrel again.”

Mark McKerron, 56, who was a handyman for years until he hurt his back, said he used to earn in one week what Social Security Disability provides for him each month. He bounces from couch to couch, relying on relatives to provide him with a place to stay.

It’s an uncomfortable situation, but he has little alternative, McKerron said.

“They all say they’re glad to see me,” McKerron said. “I’m sure they’re all glad to see me go.”

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at: [email protected]

Correction: This story was revised at 2:42 p.m., April 11, 2013, to state that Section 8 provides housing vouchers covering most of the cost for families and individuals who qualify. Recipients pay 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities.