People & Places

Homelessness still haunts 'Ghost'

Old routines beckon from his new apartment

Donald Wroblewski, known as “Ghost” by his friends, looks Dec. 12 out onto Greene Square as he smokes a cigarette in a parking garage in Cedar Rapids. He still is adjusting to his new living situation at Crestwood Ridge Apartments — where he was selected to live in a one-bedroom unit — and he spends much of his time walking a loop in downtown Cedar Rapids, checking in with friends who still are living on the streets. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Donald Wroblewski, known as “Ghost” by his friends, looks Dec. 12 out onto Greene Square as he smokes a cigarette in a parking garage in Cedar Rapids. He still is adjusting to his new living situation at Crestwood Ridge Apartments — where he was selected to live in a one-bedroom unit — and he spends much of his time walking a loop in downtown Cedar Rapids, checking in with friends who still are living on the streets. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After 15 years of recurring homelessness, Ghost — how many people know Donald Wroblewski — has a home. It’s a milestone he appreciates but has not fully embraced.

Despite having a place of his own, Ghost spends his days much as he did when he spent nights in alleys, stairwells and doorways. The transition underscores the complexities of homelessness and highlights an under-the-radar community scraping by through resourcefulness, looking out for each other and the help of caring service providers.

“I can’t turn my back on where I came from,” Ghost said. “I have to go back.”

The 45-year-old lives in a one-bedroom apartment, one of five targeting the chronically homeless in the new Crestwood Ridge Apartments, 1200 Edgewood Road NW. After two years of debate, the 45-unit complex with on-site case management from Willis Dady Homeless Services opened this fall thanks to $8 million in federal tax credits to be a homeless housing demonstration site.

The City Council initially blocked it under pressure from neighbors citing concerns about stormwater runoff, traffic and safety. City leaders reversed course after the developer — Commonbond Communities, a St. Paul, Minn., nonprofit specializing in affordable housing — agreed to install a turn lane, sidewalks, larger playground, an underground cistern to capture stormwater and other features to mitigate neighborhood concerns.

Ghost lives on an upper floor apartment with an open kitchen-living room layout. A friend who Ghost helped when they were homeless gave him a flat-screen television, DVD player and vacuum cleaner. His bed, couch and other home furnishings came from charities. Cans of soup and cereal and an empty 24-pack of Bud Ice sit in the pantry. A wok with oil from frying chicken rests on the stove.

A wall hanging from a friend reads, “A Genuine Original.”

“It fits me,” Ghost grins behind his graying beard.

He’s chatty, friendly, and quick to smile or laugh. About 6 feet tall and 215 pounds, he’s still got the frame for football, which he played in school, he said.

The space is sparse and tidy.

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“It’s a clean house,” he said. “I take pride in that. This is how I live.”

He peers through window blinds inspecting outside. He does it again, and again.

At Crestwood, he sleeps with windows open no matter the temperature. The cold air on his face rekindles the familiarity of nights outside. The apartment is a mixed bag. He doesn’t face the stress of finding where to rest each night, but it can be too quiet and lonely, he said.

For years, he has traveled and slept in a pack. He has been attacked, robbed and harassed. A group of young adults jumped him at a bench on the Cedar River Trail in downtown and “bashed in his grill,” knocking out his teeth with a 2-by-4, he said. A close friend was strangled to death in 2015.

The first two nights he had the apartment, he didn’t stay there. Ghost returned to his old haunts and slept outside. The third night, friends stayed with him playing dice, cards — “Spades” and “Up and Down the River” — and drinking.

The apartment comes with no preconditions. He need not apply for jobs nor meet with case workers unless he wants to. He’s not tested for drugs or alcohol. The only rules are those of the landlord — no smoking and limited house guests. He got caught smoking, but is trying to abide, he said.

Alicia Faust, Willis Dady support services manager, spends two days a week at Crestwood meeting with Ghost and the other formerly homeless tenants as a sounding board, an intermediary and a connection to resources, such as substance abuse treatment, mental health, money management and energy assistance.

In selecting tenants, advocates sought the most at-risk people, she said. One unit holds a family from Congo seeking asylum.

Ghost was well-known to the service providers, she said.

“There was no one on the streets as long as Ghost,” Faust said. “We knew he needed this.”

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The arrangement will be re-evaluated at the end of the first year to adjust his rent if necessary. At this point he is not earning money, so he does not pay rent — only utilities. The units are reserved for those earning 30 percent or less of the area median income, which is $57,000 for a single person household. Other units are geared to other income levels.

Service providers believe permanent housing with intensive case management is a more effective investment than short-term, transitional housing, she said. Stable housing relieves pressure on police, ambulance, shelters, jails, emergency rooms and other resources, she said.

“It is proven to work,” she said. “A big piece of this is how do we get people to be self-sufficient.”

Neighbors still are leery about the complex, but other than bright outdoor lights, they say so far Crestwood Ridge hasn’t been a problem.

Rich Raczynski, 67, who lives on Jackson Drive NW, said few cars are ever in the parking lot, so it remains to be seen if issues emerge as more people move in. CommonBond officials said other than seven three-bedroom units, the complex is full.

“We need multifamily housing, but I would have thought they would put it somewhere near more services,” Raczynski said. Crestwood is about 2 miles west of downtown.

Ghost came to Cedar Rapids after getting out of jail and began life without a permanent home. He left his wife and kids — he has four adult kids now and grandchildren — calling the situation not good. He said he has started rebuilding his relationship with his kids.

“I became comfortable on the street,” he explained.

He’s lived places before. At one point he had a small apartment where 27 people wound up living, he said. He abandoned the flop house and returned outside.

Ghost doesn’t go into great detail about his past, but he acknowledges troubles.

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He grew up in El Reno, Okla. and Brandon, Iowa, north of Vinton. He describes himself as a “wild” kid who ran afoul with alcohol, drugs, weapons and breaking into cars. He became estranged from his biological mother when he was 11 at the same time he first went to juvenile detention, he said.

He has more than 50 charges on his rap sheet in Iowa, 27 of them alcohol-related, as well as more serious crimes including domestic abuse and assault, according to court records. He said one year he spent 287 days in jail.

Despite having a home now, Ghost still walks or buses downtown every day where he makes rounds like he did when he was homeless. Walking around with Ghost earlier this month offers a vantage point of Cedar Rapids few experience.

He checks in on people and tries to bring a smile to their face. He calls it “politicking.”

He starts at the Ground Transportation Center and takes the sidewalk or skywalk the few blocks to the public library. On the third floor of the library, he’s quoted in an art installation about homelessness.

At nearby Waypoint Services, he checks his mail and collects a box of macaroni and cheese, lasagna noodles and a can of chicken noodle soup. He doesn’t get greedy, he said. Basic toiletries also are available. A bundled up person huddles on one of several chairs.

“People like Ghost, especially in the winter months, come in to stay warm,” said Lindsey Ellickson, who works at Waypoint. She estimates 30 to 50 people stop in each day.

As Ghost leaves, he sings verses of “Ain’t no Sunshine,” to Jackie King, who is working at the front desk.

“It makes me smile no matter what,” King said.

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At Greene Square pantry, Jill Hemann hands him sandwiches to pass out and frozen chicken feet for later.

“If not for mama, I don’t know where half of us would be,” Ghost said of Hemann.

Staff at Helping Hands Ministry gives Ghost a box of hand warmers to pass out. He walks by First Presbyterian Church where he often came for Sunday meals.

Back at the library, Ghost finds a friend to go to Casey’s General Store to buy a pint of vodka. Ghost can’t go in because Casey’s banned him for a year, he said. He was with friends who were caught stealing, he said.

He makes his rounds again — library, bus station, park, Casey’s — running into friends, helping a woman with a walker onto a transit bus, ducking into an alley for a drink, and “sniping” half-smoked cigarettes out of ashtrays or the ground. A man he hasn’t seen in a while hands him $5 to buy cigarettes. An old friend who goes by “Purify” hails him from a parking lot across the street to share a Natty Rush, a canned alcohol punch.

As Ghost walks, he sees places that served as a refuge. There’s an alcove where he “spent a minute,” a Dumpster behind Ecumenical Community Center and an alley off Third Street SE in a doorway that never opened, which was his shelter for a couple of years.

Ghost is not sober, he acknowledges, but he is in a much better place than he was months ago. He recalls a bender drinking three gallons of vodka a day with a friend. He’s been off heroin for six years, and off meth, which he used much of his life, for a year and a half, he said.

He had to moderate alcohol to complete paperwork and attend meetings to qualify for Crestwood, he said. He’s proud of it, too, both curtailing drinking and landing an apartment.

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He’s trying to put the pieces together for a more stable future. He has goals of completing paperwork related to a degenerative disc in his back, and he has a lead on a job driving a delivery truck. Longer term he sees himself seeking a position with a social service provider, such as Waypoint or Willis Dady.

He’s a good talker, he said, and his experiences would help him connect with people dealing with a range of circumstances. He sees himself as a role model.

“People look at me and say, ‘If Ghost can do it, so can we,’” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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