Linda Kuppenbender fills her sketchbook with a mix of the realistic and fantastic, a space where women in various poses give way to dragons and other mythical beasts.
Outside her sketchbook, Kuppenbender’s existence is firmly grounded in reality. It’s early July and she’s sitting at a table underneath the Stillman Park shelter, which provides shade and outlets to charge her phone. Her tan station wagon is parked nearby, and she said it’s where she’s slept most nights since she was forced out of her apartment in March 2017 due to black mold issues.
She’s a member of Pendleton’s growing homeless community.
Kuppenbender has parked the car in several spots in and around town, but she said she has been cited for sleeping in her car overnight and can’t afford another fine.
She relies on Social Security for money, and when she can afford it, Kuppenbender said she’ll put some gas in her car and move to a new location.
While Social Security might cover some necessities, it’s proven insufficient in helping her find permanent housing.
Kuppenbender said all the apartments she’s looked at are $500 and up and in poor condition.
She rejects some of the other hallmarks of local homelessness: She refuses to panhandle and she doesn’t like staying at the warming station because of the proximity to people with substance abuse issues.
“I try to live like a lady, but it’s hard being a lady out here,” she said.
Kuppenbender said she wants people in Pendleton to know that homeless people aren’t worthy of their contempt, and that everyone’s ancestors were homeless at some point in time.
Homeless by choice
“I know you’re supposed to smoke pot in your living room, but this is my living room,” said Gregg Carter, brandishing a cigarette and gesturing to the nearby Stillman Park.
The 56-year-old arrived to town in 2016 and found it to be a safe and neighborly place, so he stayed.
For Carter, being homeless is a choice he made eight years ago, and he doesn’t plan on going back. When the economy took a downturn in 2008 and he lost his job — then his house two years later — he decided to live without the things most people consider necessities.
No stranger to a life of nomadic minimalism, he said settling into homelessness was a smooth transition. When he got out of the Marine Corps in 1983, he said, he resolved to hitchhike from San Diego to the East Coast. He then spent the next four years traveling back and forth to opposite sides of the United States and working odd jobs wherever he stopped.
Carter is aware of the stigma of homelessness and the criticisms that accompany it. Because he actively chooses to be homeless, he operates on a mentality that he should live modestly. “If you’re not going to contribute, minimize what you take,” he said, and prides himself on being “non-criminal homeless.”
He strives to live inconspicuously and encourages other people to do the same. Portions of his personality reveal just how much he likes to blend in to his surroundings. He wears a camouflage jacket with the sleeves rolled up and carries all of his possessions in a tan and gray backpack. And although he maintains that he doesn’t have a favorite color, shades of green and other earth tones top the list.
When he needs a spot to rest his head, he finds a shady place near the river underneath a canopy of trees. He uses the term “in the shadows” to describe his preferred state of being.
“If you’re going to be homeless in a small town — anywhere,” he corrected, “you’re not going to be totally wanted.”
‘Not all bums’
When Oregon upped its recycling deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents in 2017, Bryan Miller called it a “homeless raise.”
Miller estimates he walks 8-10 miles per day scouring Pendleton for bottles, cans, and other items that could be redeemed for a cash refund. On a good night, he brings in about $30.
One of the main tools of Miller’s trade is a modified broom handle, which he uses to carry as many as six bags at a time on his wiry frame.
Miller was acting as a groundskeeper for a marijuana grow in Walla Walla when the main residents of the property suddenly moved out and abandoned it.
Without a place to live, Miller decided to move to Pendleton to be close to his nine-year-old daughter.
While he originally intended to find another permanent home, Miller has grown to like the freedom of being homeless.
“It’s definitely been (a part of) an upswing in my life,” he said.
Many of Pendleton’s poor and homeless collect recyclables, but Miller delineates himself from the group of collectors who jump into a backyards or tear apart a trashcan looking for bottles and cans.
“Not all homeless people are bums,” he said.
Miller was recently joined by his father, who relocated to Pendleton after the homeless ministry he was staying at in Southern California shut down.
Although both men are now homeless, Miller said it’s been “cool” to reconnect with his dad after not seeing him for three years.
Miller also saw it as a positive development for his daughter, who has only seen her grandfather a handful of times over her lifetime.