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The sight is common if disquieting. A forlorn person standing at a freeway off-ramp, on a traffic median or near a bank holds a hand-lettered sign: Family to feed. Will work for food. Help.

Since the number of woebegone solicitors shows no signs of decreasing, cities and local governments across the country are beginning to flash their own messages: Don't beg from drivers. Don't sit on sidewalks or stand by cash machines.Cities from Alexandria, Va., and Akron, Ohio, to Berkeley, Calif., have put limits on where and how people are allowed to beg.

California is a microcosm of what is happening all over the country. The City of Corte Madera, in Marin County, passed but hasn't yet enforced a ban on vehicular solicitation. South Lake Tahoe banned roadway begging in 1994. And in March, Santa Clara, Calif., a Silicon Valley city of 98,000 people, issued an ordinance that prohibits the people called "signers" from hailing drivers.

Police Chief Charles Arolla, who suggested the idea to the city council of Santa Clara, said he was worried that beggars would cause accidents or even fall into traffic. Arolla said it is nothing more than a safety issue. "You can't identify this as a homeless problem," he said.

But that's just what civil liberties groups say it is. "Laws that focus on panhandling are misdirected," said Alan Schlosser, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco. "The motive is to get the problem out of sight."

Last year alone, at least 29 cities enacted some sort of curbs on activities commonly associated with the homeless, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington. And the previous year there were already 39 ordinances on the books. Most of them have not been challenged.

And in March the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deflected a challenge by civil libertarians on Seattle's ban on sidewalk sitting, giving heart to those who support the city's right to control its streets.

Last month New Orleans passed a measure requiring roadside beggars to pay $50 for a license. Last year Hartford, Conn., banned aggressive, insistent panhandling near bank machines.

San Francisco is one of the rare exceptions. Mayor Willie Brown says he wants to do away with the city's strict enforcement of aggressive rules against panhandling. But even there, the police still enforce laws against sleeping in public places. And just over the bay, in Berkeley, store owners are complaining about sidewalk beggars.

"You shouldn't have to walk over people to get into a store or look in a window," said Manuela Albuquerque, the city attorney in Berkeley, which is trying to ban people from sitting or lying near buildings.

But homeless people and their advocates say that ugly urban realities won't be ameliorated by bans on where and how people congregate, and that soothing the eyes of shoppers isn't a government interest that justifies infringing on people's rights.

"Is this a rational or sensible response to the fact that there are growing numbers of people begging on our streets?" said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center.

The conflict between civil liberties and civility is a thorny one that the courts are now grappling with. There are limits to how and where cities can ban begging, as New York City learned three years ago.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1993 that New York could not ban begging on city streets (though it could ban it in the subway), because begging is a form of free speech (as is topless dancing). In 1995 the U.S. District Court ruled that Amtrak and Penn Station could not eject homeless people.

In 1994 Miami learned a similar lesson. Citing the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment, the 11th Circuit Court overturned a Miami law that the police had used to arrest and fine people for sleeping in public.

Many other cities have taken New York and Miami as models of what not to do. They have learned to write narrower ordinances that are likelier to pass by the courts. These bans do not target the homeless themselves but their actions.

For instance, in 1994, Berkeley voters approved a package of more than $500,000 in new homeless services. At the same time they voted to prohibit people from sitting or lying within 6 feet of a building, from asking for money within 10 feet of a cash machine and from begging from anyone getting into or out of a car. They also voted to forbid soliciting in public at night.

Before the measure could even go into effect, though, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken issued a temporary restraining order. "Some Berkeley citizens feel annoyed or guilty when faced with an indigent beggar," she wrote. "Feelings of annoyance or guilt, however, cannot outweigh the exercise of First Amendment rights."

Now the city is appealing the injunction. The state's attorney general and 90 cities filed friend-of-court briefs supporting Berkeley's effort.

"Berkeley is very compassionate, it's very liberal in its attitude," said Mayor Shirley Dean. But, she added, "Being compassionate does not mean that you are a doormat."