You're walking along the street in downtown Salt Lake City when you are accosted by a beggar seeking - indeed, sometimes demanding - a handout.

What do you do?Dig into your pocket and fork over some change, or maybe even a dollar or two? It isn't always easy to decide. Some panhandlers may really need a meal; others just want money for booze.

So how about responding with something potentially more helpful than money - one of the new "Helping Hand" cards from the United Way. Handouts often merely help perpetuate panhandling. The cards can direct beggars to organizations that provide not only food, shelter, and medical aid but in some cases the kind of help needed to end dependency.

The card includes suggestions on how to deal with panhandlers: "Walk with an air of confidence and purpose. Acknowledge a panhandler with a nod and a firm, courteous `no.' Give a copy of this card and continue walking. Please call police if you are harassed or feel threatened."

For the benefit of those needing help, the card lists the location of such agencies as the Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul Center, Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, and the Travelers Aid Society, among others.

The cards can be obtained by telephoning the United Way at 328-0211. That's also the place to offer donations to the various charitable organizations or United Way itself. It's far better to pick a few reliable, experienced such groups than to be constantly deciding which panhandlers to trust.