In case you haven't noticed, panhandlers in Salt Lake City are on the increase.

They are active every day in the downtown area, especially on Main Street. This is a problem familiar to all cities. In New York City, for instance, the transit authority recently prohibited begging. A lower court ruled that such a prohibition was unconstitutional because begging is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Then a federal appeals judge reversed that ruling, saying that New York City can oust panhandlers from the subway because asking for money is NOT a protected form of speech.It depends on which judge gets the case.

In Salt Lake City, the Downtown Merchants Association has been worrying about panhandlers, too. They have expressed a desire for increased police patrols to control "aggressive panhandlers."

Panhandlers come in several different varieties. One may sing, usually accompanied by a guitar and a hat conspicuously placed upside down on the pavement for donations. Another may sing a cappella, while another plays a harmonica.

None is musically gifted. But they use entertainment as a pretext to attract donations without asking. Paradoxically, some of them are so shy that it is easier for them to sing than to ask for money. Others consider singing a way of earning money.

One panhandler prefers not to entertain but avoids asking directly by holding a sign, saying "Will Work for Food." Occasionally, one will try a more specific one, such as "Need Funds to Move East," probably thinking there are people so disgusted with panhandlers that they will gladly contribute to get rid of one of them. One older man nudges my arm and shows me a small card saying, "CHANGE."

Then there is the most familiar type - those who actually stop passers-by and ask point blank for money. They say "Can you spare a quarter?" or "Can you spare some change?" One woman stopped me and said, "I need $5 for food." Psychologically, it probably makes more sense to ask for a smaller amount.

Many of these people are fixtures. Several have asked me for money more than once, always in the same way, even from the same spot on the sidewalk. One man with impaired vocal cords is barely able to speak.

Most are shabbily dressed and in need of a bath. It's virtually impossible to know the level of sincerity. We've all heard reports that there are people who make a comfortable living as panhandlers - people who don't mind appearing dilapidated in public if it pays off. I don't know if that's true, but I doubt it. I did some research at the University of Utah and the homeless shelters, trying unsuccessfully to find a Utah person who knows anything about them. Someone in sociology or social work should study them.

I suspect that most panhandlers are in fact homeless, hungry and penniless. But it is evident that all of them make residents uncomfortable.

In my own observations on the street, few people give. Some speed up as a panhandler approaches, fearing a confrontation. Others take the time to lecture the panhandler, moralizing about the importance of "working for a living."

Some people think that giving to someone who begs is inherently wrong, because the money will be used unwisely - for drink or for drugs.

Obviously, this is a problem none of us knows how to handle. I used to pass panhandlers, barely acknowledging their existence. More recently, my conscience has been pricked. Not knowing if they are legitimate doesn't concern me any more. I just assume they are, thinking it is better to risk getting conned by a few in order to help those in genuine need.

What right do I have, anyway, to moralize about how they got where they are?

I think how terrible I would feel if I were reduced to the same predicament.

Maybe it's simple guilt that prompts me to reach into my pocket. I'd like to think it's compassion. But until someone gives me a better approach, I'm going to keep doing it.