These days, beggars can be choosers, according to the Utah County Homeless Task Force and other community agencies, but some are choosing to reject offers of help and are taking advantage of residents' sympathy.

Officials are warning kindhearted residents to beware of the panhandlers waving signs saying they'll work for food who have been showing up all over the valley. They say residents should not to take these people home. Some well-intentioned "good Samaritans" have been robbed or have had valuables stolen.Marilee Shelton, director of the Food and Shelter Coalition, said, "We have sent people to talk to them (panhandlers) and they are not interested in assistance. And most of them know about the community programs that we have."

Myla Dutton, director of Community Action and a member of the Task Force, said panhandlers are offered food, shelter and work, but some turn the offers down.

The panhandlers are receiving so many handouts that they are making more money than the givers - some as high as $300 per day. According to Gerald Nielsen, Orem Police spokesman, at least two panhandlers he is aware of are longtime residents of the area and one owns his own home.

"It is my observation that this community is a very generous community," Dutton said. "I recommend that rather than offering money or taking someone home, residents should let them know about the services."

Part of the warning also stems from the fact that 20 percent of the "street people" in Utah County are mentally ill or have drug- and alcohol-related problems.

Panhandlers in Provo and Orem basically "work" the same locations, like grocery store parking lots, the University Mall and discount store parking lots.

However, many are wandering back and forth between American Fork and Payson collecting donations. Nearly all of them can be identified by the cardboard signs they carry saying "will work for food."

According to Shelton, the sign-toting panhandlers are very clever. "Many of them know that if you word your sign "will work for food" it is legally not panhandling . . . or at least as close as you can come."

Some panhandlers are making so much money they may owe taxes on it. Jan Hadley, public affairs officer with the Internal Revenue Service in Salt Lake City, said that panhandlers are considered individually.

"Section 61 of the IRS code states that all income is taxable unless exempt by some other section of the code. One of those codes just happens to be section 102 dealing with gifts," Hadley said. "However, if they do provide services in exchange for money or goods - then that is taxable income."

Whether they receive gifts or are conducting business, there are more of these street people, according to Shelton and Dutton. In fact, there has been a dramatic increase in food and shelter needs in two years.

"Last year our agency saw a 200 percent increase in the amount of people we served. As of September 1990 our hot dinner meals were at 900 per month. We are now serving well over 1,200 per month," Shelton said.

Dutton said that Community Action offers canned goods and other commodities for people to take home and prepare.