CEDAR RAPIDS — Since Donald Wroblewski — better known around Cedar Rapids as Ghost — moved into Crestwood Ridge Apartments last October, the societal costs surrounding him have dropped.
The 46-year-old had been in and out of emergency rooms, jail cells, courtrooms and other services over the past 15 years of being mostly homeless, but since he found stable housing his interaction with those services have dropped considerably.
After being arrested 37 times in five years, he was charged just once in the past eight months. Hospital visits dropped from 22 to two.
“A lot of it is stress, and I have less of it now,” Ghost said Wednesday while sitting at a table at Greene Square, which is a near daily stop for him. “Stress causes illness. You worry about this, you worry about that. You get sick. You end up drinking too much. You end up in the hospital. You end up in jail.”
A picture of why some homeless advocates say the “housing first” concept works — that getting people stable housing will serve as a foundation to correct other issues — came into focus thanks to Ghost’s participation in a study on the cost of homelessness conducted by Willis Dady Homeless Services.
The participants were kept confidential and identified only by pseudonyms, but Ghost agreed to reveal his identity.
The study examined the financial costs associated with homelessness for eight people in Linn County who were homeless for at least one year during a five-year period from 2013 to 2018. The study focused on legal costs, medical costs and housing costs, and juxtaposed those costs with the person’s housing situation, such as if they were homeless, incarcerated, living in transitional housing, at-risk housing or stable housing.
Eight homeless people cost $1.2 million
The eight participants cost a combined $1.2 million over the five years while they were homeless compared to just $9,469 when one participant had stable housing or $86,650 when four participants were in transitional housing. Even at-risk housing proved less costly at $218,391 for five individuals, according to the study.
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When stably housed during this period, each participant cost $4,754 less per month than when they were homeless, according to the study.
“The study does not reflect every homeless person in Linn County,” said Kasperian Kittredge, VISTA Cost of Homelessness Coordinator for Willis Dady. “But, the costs we are seeing shouldn’t be ignored and should be taken into account when talking about policies for the homeless and when looking at possible long-term solutions, such as supportive housing.”
A similar “cost of homelessness” study in Johnson County released in 2016 found four individuals accumulated $2.2 million in costs over a 4½-year period.
In Ghost’s case, he was by far the most expensive in the study, accounting for more than 50 percent of the total costs or $684,931. Typically, between 10 and 15 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness account for at least half the total cost of homelessness, Kittredge said.
Ghost’s hospital visits were a big factor in his high costs. He was frequently using hospital services for intoxication, physical health or mental health, according to the study.
“We see a shift from really expensive emergency services to more preventive care when people have housing,” Kittredge said.
Sandi McIntosh, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital director of Emergency Services, said emergency room staff provide care for homeless people, and if follow-up care is needed they work with St. Luke’s social workers to make an appointment with a primary care doctor and also make referrals for permanent housing.
“St. Luke’s never denies medically necessary care to any patient, and all patients are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances,” she said.
Starting to feel like home at Crestwood ridge
After initially struggling to adjust, and wondering if he ever would, Ghost said he is starting to feel at home.
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Ghost was selected as someone who could benefit most when Crestwood opened five apartments as a homeless housing demonstration site last fall under the belief permanent supportive housing is the best method to help people get back on their feet and address surrounding issues such as mental health, substance abuse, alcohol abuse and unemployment.
All of the initial tenants in the five units remain, and they are nearing the recertification period for their lease and program, at which point they would apply to stay in their units or move on, said Alicia Faust, a case worker for Willis Dady. She is hopeful Ghost recertifies to “stay at Crestwood and continue engaging in the program and making progress with his goals,” she said.
“The transition for a majority of the tenants has gotten progressively better,” Faust said. “It’s a ways out from downtown, which has been tricky for some with getting bus tickets or transportation to appointments or the food banks, but they find their ways or walk/ride a bike if needed.”
Ghost has his drinking more under control living at Crestwood than in the past, he said.
Some days, he doesn’t have a drop of alcohol, which is a significant shift from months earlier when he needed a couple of drinks to start the day. That too was an improvement from a long period chronic inebriation.
He has seen other positive changes as well.
He has a girlfriend, and is working to get his Social Security benefits reinstated. He has also reconnected with his youngest son, Austin, 22, who drives down daily from Mount Auburn to visit, Ghost said. The two had been largely estranged since he had last seen Austin as a teenager during a visit in which Ghost admits he was drunk.
“It’s one thing to tell your son you are proud of him, but another when your son tells you he is proud of you,” Ghost said.
On Father’s Day weekend he provided a young woman, who had been jumping from house to house with her two young children, a place to stay. It made him feel good, and made the place feel like a home, he said.
“My life is totally different,” Ghost said. “I am relaxed. I am not always under pressure. I don’t have to find a place every night. I even got a watch. I’m on point.”
He still faces challenges, though.
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Panhandling remains his main source of income, along with the generosity of others in various forms.
In January, he was charged with fifth-degree theft after being observed concealing merchandise valued at $7.48 from Walmart and leaving the store without paying, according to court records. He retrieved the stolen merchandise when confronted by an officer, according to the records.
How police respond to homeless people
Lt. Cory McGarvey said a fair amount of time is spent responding to complaints related to homeless people. Sometimes citizens call to report someone sleeping under a bridge or an encampment is “trashed.” Other times police are responding to a person who is intoxicated, fighting, or belligerent, he said.
Police are compassionate, particularly when homeless people have set up camp in an area they are not allowed, McGarvey said. Officers will provide a list of services and give them a day or two to move on.
“We have repeat offenders,” he said. “We know them by name. Every once in a while a new person, either they are recently homeless, they’ve come from out of town or they’ve done a really good job flying under the radar.”
Frequent offenders regularly wind up in jail for theft, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, fighting or public intoxication, but are generally released quickly. In the winter, sometimes people are just looking for a warm place to go and warm food, McGarvey said.
He said he was happy when the winter overflow opened last year because homeless people had a place to go.
“You don’t have to take them to the hospital or to jail, unless they mess up at the overflow, and then you have to take them,” McGarvey said.
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