Milpas Street residents and business owners gathered Tuesday to formally announce the formation of the Milpas Community, a group dedicated to reducing the amount of prostitution, drugs, panhandling and public defecation in the area.

During the press conference, community members said the neighborhood is currently unsafe due to a high crime rate and the large homeless population. Organizers called for city leaders to provide additional aid and a larger police presence.

According to Alan Bleecker, owner of Capital Hardware and CEO of the Milpas Community, the organization plans to coordinate with other local groups.

“We are assembling an organization of businesses who are disenchanted with the fact that so many people are coming to lower Milpas area and getting the services, but not respecting the community and neighborhoods,” Bleecker said. “We look forward to working with the city, the county and other nonprofit organizations to help solve Milpas’ problems …there are a lot of illegal activities causing the plight.”

The group plans to employ “adopt a block” programs, neighborhood watch groups and Santa Barbara’s “Real Change, Not Spare Change” program — an educational program that teaches residents about the roots of homelessness.

Santa Barbara City Council member Frank Hotchkiss said the city as a whole needs to focus on long-term solutions for the transient population.

“We need to reduce the number of homeless to a number we can handle so we can help treat their mental illnesses and addictions,” Hotchkiss said. “If we provide free services without requiring them to seek treatment, we are enabling rather than helping them. It is a balance between helping homeless people who want to help themselves and providing local residents and families with safe public places to enjoy.”

Paul McCaffrey, public information officer with the Santa Barbara Police Dept., said police acknowledge the area’s high level of crime and are willing to collaborate with local groups.

“We are interested in working with the community and the members of this association,” McCaffrey said. “Most community problems are improved by cooperation between police and the community.”

However, although the association is calling for an increased police presence, McCaffey said moving additional officers into the Milpas area could leave other areas of Santa Barbara vulnerable.

Individuals from the nearby Casa Esperanza homeless shelter gathered outside the meeting area to express their concern over some of the Milpas Community’s goals.

A former transient who referred to himself as “Bee Jay” said the homeless are unfairly labeled as criminals and that the Milpas Community does not understand the realities of surviving homelessness.

“What can be the only outcome of a locked bathroom?” he said. “That building becomes the perfect bathroom.”