SALT LAKE CITY — I walked into the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen at precisely 5:37 p.m. and approached the serving table.

Without asking for identification, assessing what I was wearing or any kind of scrutiny whatsoever, the man at the front of the line did what he was there to do.

He offered me a dinner tray.

Across the street, at The Road Home shelter, I inquired about the possibility of finding a place to sleep.

With none of the usual front desk routine of producing a credit card "for incidentals," I was told they'd find a bed for me as soon as possible. Possibly tonight — even though I hadn't exactly planned ahead — but if not, within the week.

Two blocks away, at the Rescue Mission, under the sign of a cross proclaiming "Jesus Saves," I was told I could eat breakfast at 6, lunch at noon and dinner at 8 and have a place to sleep if I obeyed the rules, checked in at the proper time, wasn't drunk, didn't have TB and attended a one-hour chapel service at 7 p.m. If they didn't have room for me in the beds, I could sleep in the chapel until they could fit me in.

Down on the corner, at the Fourth Street health clinic, I asked if I could see a nurse or doctor. Of course, they said, as long as I had shelter ID, verifying that I was homeless, then I could take a seat in the waiting room to see if anyone canceled, or I could come back the next morning at 8 and make an appointment.

The charge for all of the above was identical: nothing.

In downtown Salt Lake City, you can eat, sleep and see the doctor for free.

It costs the same as breathing.

I bring this up in light of Mayor Ralph Becker's proposal — which the City Council is now considering — to tighten restrictions on aggressive panhandling.

In downtown Salt Lake City, more and more people have their hand out asking for more and more money, and some are getting more forceful.

Most insist they need money so they can get something to eat and have somewhere to sleep.

But as anyone with an ounce of street smarts knows, those expenses are already covered.

The mayor's effort is being met with opposition from civil libertarians who believe everyone has the right to beg when, where and how they please.

That may or may not be a freedom of speech, and it remains to be seen if panhandlers will be restricted from certain areas — such as directly in front of an ATM or a train stop.

But putting the focus on panhandling helps draw attention to all the facilities available to people who truly are down on their luck.

And available in heartwarming abundance.

At the St. Vincent kitchen, I stood along the far wall and for a long time watched the procession of people file in and eat their dinner.

Hundreds got in line, got their tray and had it filled full of stew, salad, fruit, a roll and cookies.

I watched some get back in line for seconds. Some came for thirds. One man got in line four times.

It's not just a soup kitchen. It's an all-you-can-eat soup kitchen.

The majority were men, but there were women and families and more small children than you might expect.

I noted that a lot of the trays still had some food left on them when they were turned in — similar to the school cafeterias I remember — a clear indication that no one's too worried that there won't be anything to eat tomorrow.

The scene was both uplifting, as it reflected a community that is serious and proactive about taking care of the less fortunate, and distressing, because of the reminder that for too many, life has its detours.

But the thought struck me as I left the homeless services corridor: If everyone knew what is available, there would be no panhandling — period.

Beggars would go out of business because no one would give them anything other than a smile and clear, enthusiastic directions to the kitchens and the shelters.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to [email protected]