“Whose streets? Our streets!”

This seems to be the unofficial battle cry for both sides in the perpetual battle for downtown. On one side, the settled gentry of Santa Cruz, those with addresses and jobs, want to reclaim the streets and beaches from homeless people and panhandlers who, they believe, overrun the city.

On the other side are the same men and women who perform and panhandle just to scrape by.

The latter group was dealt a blow on Jan. 27 when Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to implement new downtown measures that would restrict panhandling within 14 feet of public art, trash compactors and directories. This was an add-on to an existing set of complicated rules regarding where and how people can ask for spare change.

When was the last time you worried about time spent sitting on a planter or leaning on a pillar? For Santa Cruz’s homeless, it is a daily concern.

Bench-sitting is now limited to a one-hour time limit and the sale of alcohol is prohibited to “known serial inebriates.”

If anyone fails to appear in court for three or more citations in a six-month period, an arrest warrant may be issued.

There’s a certain amount of ridiculousness when it comes to laws like this. It’s a waste of time for the police to spend hours enforcing petty rules when there are robberies, rapes, and homicides to be solved.

And while these laws may not seem like a big deal, if properly implemented, it could be the end of Santa Cruz culture as we know it. Street performers’ stages have been reduced to 2-by-2-foot squares. And where homeless people once felt welcome and safe on the city’s streets, paranoia and distrust will seep onto the already unfriendly streets.

At the City Council meeting, Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews announced, “Our overall goal is to create a downtown and beach area where the general public feels comfortable and welcome.” But how can people feel welcome in a community where there are time limits for sitting on a bench and rigid rules for harmless offenses?

Selected businesses have been upset with the downtown environment in recent years because the company owners are worried about certain behaviors of panhandling, drug dealing, and an overall intimidating presence of homeless people being bad for business.

These are just a few misconceptions circulating about the city’s downtown. Homeless people are not the scum of society and don’t deserve to be treated like second-class citizens. Many of the people we see on the streets are victims of the same problems facing all of us: foreclosed homes, credit card debt, or just bad luck. Not all of them are drug addicts and villains, and they don’t deserve to be treated as such.

Even at the City Council meeting, their voices were ignored and cut off. It is particularly imperative that the council hears from all people when drafting new laws, particularly those most directly affected.

Downtown entrepreneurs expressed particular concern that, in an economic downturn, getting customers to come into their stores was of even greater importance. The panhandlers and vagrants, they claim, are detrimental to their already struggling businesses.

The city is so concerned with creating a clean-cut image that it is sacrificing a vibrant community to appease a very vocal, yet miniscule, sector of the populace. Businesses are important, but so are people’s rights. Perhaps City Council should listen to the entire community’s concerns rather than the fears and interests of selected businesses.

As a community, let’s keep encouraging the motto “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” Give support to the local street musicians and don’t be scared to throw a homeless guy a smile or your leftovers from dinner every once in a while.