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‘Housed Not Hidden:’ How local pastor Michael Ballman is breaking the stigma of homelessness

Thomas Caputo
Staff writer
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Posted 8/12/22

Situated along Oneida Square in Utica is the Cornerstone Plymouth Bethesda Church which has become a safe haven for the city’s homeless.

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‘Housed Not Hidden:’ How local pastor Michael Ballman is breaking the stigma of homelessness

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“They’re people and they’re human and their stories matter. They can get better, but we can’t push them to the margins.”
– Michael Ballman, pastor of the Cornerstone Plymouth Bethesda Church

UTICA — Situated along Oneida Square in Utica is the Cornerstone Plymouth Bethesda Church, 500 Plant St., which has become a safe haven for the city’s homeless. Michael Ballman, pastor of the Cornerstone Plymouth Bethesda Church, leads the church’s efforts in helping the city’s homeless by providing them with food, water, clothing and shelter.

Ballman says many of the city’s homeless that come to the church are not eligible for public assistance and deal with extreme cases of trauma, mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, leaving them with no other option but to remain homeless.

“I live in this neighborhood and I work here in this neighborhood and I see them every day and I’ve gotten to know them,” Ballman said. “They’re neighbors, they’re friends and I see that there’s absolutely no contingency for them by any organization, private or public, so I feel like someone had to help them.”

According to state figures, there are approximately 170 people each day who experience homelessness in Oneida County. Recent studies estimate that, on average, 130 people in the city of Utica are homeless and are sheltered daily.

The Cornerstone Plymouth Bethesda Church previously received funding to be able to take in the city’s homeless overnight, however, with a lack of funding, the church had to cease their shelter operations. Ballman has since allowed the homeless to stay and sleep outside on the church’s property.

Some of the city’s homeless have developed a close-knit community at the church, where they will look out for each other and rest in groups on the church’s property, providing safety in numbers.

“One way or another, we try to wash each other’s hands,” said Kyle Genier, one of the city’s homeless who takes refuge at the church. “That’s how it should be, especially being out on the streets. We all should be looking out for each other.”

Genier is also aware of the judgement he and other homeless people receive with their presence at Oneida Square.

“Just because they’re out here and don’t have a place to stay or they’re out here with an addiction does not mean that they’re not a person,” Genier said.

“And not all of us have an addiction, not all of us are drug addicts,” said a woman with the group of other homeless people at the church. “Some of us are actually mothers and fathers.”

Officials with the city of Utica have taken measures to address the homeless crisis in Utica by providing funding for drop-in centers both at the Utica Rescue Mission at 1013 West St. and The Salvation Army at 14 Clinton Place. The drop-in centers provide the city’s homeless with resources and a place to visit during the day, however, Ballman believes the city’s efforts aren’t enough.

“If we just disperse them, they’re still homeless,” Ballman said. “Have some compassion for the human suffering and try to be part of the solution. Just dispersing them doesn’t solve the problem.”

A solution that Ballman has suggested would be for the city to implement a Housing First strategy. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.

In order to raise funds and awareness in hopes of implementing the Housing First strategy in Oneida County, Ballman has established the Housed Not Hidden campaign. With a $100 donation, the campaign will challenge donors to spend 24 hours on the streets of Utica with Ballman to experience what it would be like to be homeless for a day, where basic necessities would be provided by the church and the kindness of strangers. The campaign has currently raised $700 of its $15,000 goal.

In addition to implementing the Housing First strategy, Ballman is hopeful that the campaign will address the stigma of homelessness and to provide a different perspective.

“What we try to do is humanize them because so much of the rhetoric is dehumanizing and criminalizing,” Ballman said.

“They’re people and they’re human and their stories matter,” he added. “They can get better, but we can’t push them to the margins.”

For more information on the Housed not Hidden campaign, visit: givebutter.com/housednothidden

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