Letitia Kidder had planned to retire with her husband, sell their home and move out to the country. But when he died five years ago, Kidder found herself saddled with expenses she couldn’t afford — including her home.
The Hermiston house where she has lived for a decade was foreclosed on in June, giving Kidder six months to either come up with the funds or vacate.
“I have to be out at midnight on Christmas,” she said.
While the 2017 count by the state of Oregon found 55 homeless people in Umatilla County, many more like Kidder are on the brink of homelessness.
Kidder is a veteran, as was her husband. He died of a heart attack in December 2012, in the middle of fighting for VA benefits.
“He was in pain from an ankle injury he received while he was in the service,” she said.
With three sons in their teens when her husband, Charles, died, Kidder said her first priority was getting her boys through school.
But as she waited to file for widow’s benefits, she said she was informed that the last stage of the application could take between two and 10 years to process.
When her husband died, Kidder was unemployed. She found a job shortly after, but was struggling to pay bills. Eventually, she was hired at O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, where she is still working.
“I have a good job,” she said, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with mortgage payments.
Kidder said she has a place to go temporarily, and she is trying to save up enough money to buy a fifth-wheel trailer. Finding another place to live is more challenging because she owns dogs, goats and a horse.
“My animals are my saving grace,” she said. “And yeah, to move out of my house, I first have to find a place that will take two big dogs.”
She has found a farm in Power City to keep the horse and goats.
She has a trailer in mind, one that belongs to the nephew of her friend. The trailer costs around $8,000, which Kidder said will take her a while to save up.
“I have a paycheck today, and I’ve got to go buy animal food,” she said. “Then in two weeks I get another paycheck, and that’s my plane ticket to go see my son graduate from boot camp.”
But Kidder is still counting herself luckier than many.
“She’s always been a trooper,” said Kidder’s longtime friend Roberta Boylan. “She’s had a ton of bad luck.”
Inside Kidder’s home, half her belongings are in boxes, and the rest are strewn around as she determines what she can take with her. Her two dogs clamored at her feet as the Weather Channel played in the background.
“I sit and watch,” Kidder said. “The people in California, Puerto Rico, Texas. I say, ‘I’m good.’ I got a roof over my head. I can’t pay for the roof over my head, but it’s better than dust — that’s all some of those people have.”
Unforeseen circumstances have displaced other locals, too, many of whom take to the Walmart parking lot in Hermiston to ask for help.
On a freezing Monday afternoon, an old woman sat in a wheelchair and a young man stood a few feet away holding a sign.
Christopher Stade, formerly of Kennewick, said someone set fire to his house in September, while he and his girlfriend were still inside. They escaped but lost most of their belongings. Since then, they have been driving around the region, trying to collect enough money to keep the car running at night while saving for a temporary place to live.
“We don’t have family that can help us, so we’ve been traveling wherever we can find help,” he said. “We’re about $100 short of getting an RV.”
Stade said he had a job at a moving company in Kennewick before the fire, but he decided to leave everything behind to get away from the relatives of the person who burned their house down.
Standing nearby, a 67-year-old woman who asked to be identified only as “Nana” sat in a wheelchair.
“I feel ashamed,” she said through tears as late afternoon temperatures dipped into the low 30s.
Nana, a longtime Hermiston resident, has been homeless for several months, but she said it wasn’t always her situation.
In the fall of 2016, when she was living in low-income housing, Nana fell ill and had to be admitted to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland.
According to her friend Susan Dickens, while she was in the hospital her landlords decided they couldn’t hold her space and put her belongings in storage, leaving her without a home.
Nana said she was working with the ConneXions program at Good Shepherd, but they tried to place her in a rest home in another city.
“They said it was the only option I had because I can’t walk,” she said. “Instead of just sending me around here, they were going to send me to Portland or Spokane where I wouldn’t know anybody.”
She likened the process to being asked to come up with a whole new existence.
“I should choose where I want to go, not just to a rest home where they’re counting the days until you’re going to pass,” she said.
Nana stayed for a short time in a Hermiston foster home, but was forced to leave after methamphetamines were found in her system and room. She said she has no idea how they got there.
After that she began staying in a motel in Hermiston.
“I’ve been doing everything myself,” she said.
She said ConneXions paid for one week’s stay in a motel, but since then she’d been funding it with her own savings — which she has now exhausted — and has now been standing in front of Walmart several days a week to earn enough money to finance the next week’s stay.
She said she usually gets between $30 and $60 per day when she stands outside but still feels embarrassed by the stigma of being homeless.
“I’m not a drug addict,” she said. “I don’t smoke or drink. I just want enough to pay for a motel.”
She recalled the many things she’s done in her life, such as working as an X-ray technician, teaching beauty and barbering, teaching piano and voice, and directing choirs.
She said there are many people like her who have become homeless through difficult circumstances.
“I don’t want this to happen to other people,” she said. “It’s a shame it has to happen at all.”
Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.