Her gold hair is a sun-catcher as she rolls on the grass of the parking strip. She laughs and skips rocks, which sometimes skitter onto the asphalt of the parking lot a few feet away.

She is 5, a tiny, pink-faced child with bright blue eyes.Her father stands close by, occasionally warning her not to run onto the parking lot.

He is about 35 and his eye color is a mystery as he squints into the sun, which has over time turned his skin to leather. His hair is brown and untrimmed, but clean.

As cars leave the grocery store parking lot, he waves a sign that reads "Will work for food."

He says he is on his way to Nevada, where he has a job waiting, but his car broke down and he needs money to replace the water pump.

His wife left him; he's lonely and a little sad, but he's doing the best he can with his little girl. I'll call them Jodi and Tom.

Being stranded in Utah is not new to Tom. He lived in the homeless shelter for a while "a year or so ago."

Across town, a mother sits on the sidewalk in front of a mall, her knees drawn up to her chest.

Two small children sit a little to one side. They're sharing a blanket for warmth. Small faces peer out under shaggy brown bangs, and they offer tentative, fleeting smiles to the people who pass by. Their eyes, to me, seem tired. The boy is about 4, the girl 6 or 7.

Their mother has a sign, too. It says, "I need money to buy food for my children."

It is panhandling with a twist. Anyone who goes downtown knows there are panhandlers. They stop you on the street and ask for a quarter, a dollar, some food, whatever.

But children have not generally been part of that scene. This year, they, too, are becoming a common sight.

It disturbs me on a lot of levels. For one thing, children in such a situation are very hard to ignore. While I don't like to see people begging, I know it's not a child's fault, or even his choice.

I can't mutter "Why don't you get a job?" and just stomp away.

The presence of children also makes the situation more poignant. I don't know anyone who wouldn't help a child in need.

As much as anything, it makes me sad. What does a child learn from the experience? Does it kill his self-esteem. Worse, will he grow up thinking that begging is how you get by in the world?

I have a peculiar picture of the 4-year-old as a grown man, a father himself. In my mind, he points at the mall and says, "That's where my mother worked."

It also makes me angry.

Try as I might to see this sad tableau differently, my impression is always one of exploitation. The exploitation of children, who deserve much better than to be trotted out as an exhibit of poverty and pain.

I wonder if it doesn't, in its own way, amount to child abuse?

The mother told me that she brings her children with her because she has no place to leave them. I believe her. But I wonder why she doesn't go to the homeless shelter. And if she's hungry, why doesn't she go to the local dining room, where people in dire straits can receive regular meals? Or one of the valley's emergency food pantries?

Is she married? If she's a single mother, she could probably qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and for food stamps. If she makes too much to be eligible for that, then why is she panhandling?

Her response to my questions is peculiar. She doesn't want to get on the welfare rolls. It would be "embarrassing."

Tom's story is different. He would accept help, but no agency he's contacted so far - and he rattles off quite a list - can do anything for him. The system, he says wryly, is not set up to buy water pumps.

His sign, he admits, is a little misleading. Food isn't the problem. But it starts conversations. Then he can tell people what his problem is.

"This guy I ran into gave me the sign," he says.

I walk away from both of them more confused that ever. I find begging repugnant. I suppose you could argue that at least the panhandlers are doing something about their situation, instead of sitting around waiting for their lives to change. They're not out burglarizing houses or rolling other transients.

But I find myself increasingly unwilling to give money. I'd rather help them find programs that can assist them over hurdles.

And, when I see the children, my emotions battle each other. On one hand, I want to help. On the other, I want to slap the parents for using their children.

Nothing will ever convince me those children aren't being victimized.