SALT LAKE CITY -- For the first time in five years, parking isn't a problem.
The Downtown Alliance commissions a survey every year of Utahns' perceptions about downtown Salt Lake City. Every year, the number one perceived problem has been that you can't find a parking spot downtown.
But for the first time, parking wasn't the number one problem. It was crime, and, more specifically, panhandling.
"Overall, downtown has improved greatly in the five years we've done this survey. Most of it's due to the great art and entertainment we have, City Creek Center was a great thing. But there are certainly some negatives that are attached to our city," said Downtown Alliance spokesman Nick Como.
The 800 or so Utahns outside Salt Lake City who were surveyed by Downtown Alliance reported panhandling and the perception that there is a lot of crime as a negative feeling toward downtown. The survey found that 20 percent went so far as to claim panhandling has stopped them from venturing downtown.
As panhandlers hit them up for spare change, people outside City Creek Center griped about more and more panhandlers that have become increasingly aggressive.
"On every side of the block around City Creek there's panhandlers asking for change, holding up signs," said Dustin Vincent. "They're not only asking, they're following you down the street asking."
A woman named Sue, who was in town for a convention, said she encountered them everywhere she went.
"I'm tired of the panhandlers because I feel guilty," she said.
The perception survey said respondents found panhandling the worst outside Temple Square, Pioneer Park, the Gateway and at freeway on- and off-ramps.
On Main Street, between City Creek Center and Temple Square, a panhandler who identified himself as "Cleveland" said he also noticed more activity downtown.
"I've got to admit, we're everywhere," he told FOX 13 News. "Some of us, we just want to eat. I'm not asking for money. There's too many of us and I'm sure people get bugged 500 times a day."
Compounding the problem, the Downtown Alliance survey found, nearly 30 percent of those surveyed admitted to giving panhandlers money. That's the problem, Como said.
"Salt Lake has a great reputation for taking care of people and being generous," he said. "That's a good thing. But people want to take advantage of that."
The courts have held that panhandling is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. The Utah State Legislature recently passed a bill cracking down on where panhandling can take place for safety reasons.
The Downtown Alliance has joined city leaders in an increasing outreach effort to encourage people not to give money to panhandlers, noting that most are not homeless or destitute as they claim to be. Recently, they added more meters painted red that collect donations for homeless shelters, urging people to put their change there instead of giving to people on the streets.
"Panhandling is a business," Como said. "When the business is no longer good, the business will go away."