KENNEWICK — Gene Brown doesn't consider himself homeless, despite living in a tiny camper in Kennewick with no running water, no sewer connection and an extension cord that powers a small electric heater.
Brown, 85, and his wife of 47 years, Shirley, have called their spot near the blue bridge in the Clover Leaf Trailer Park home since 2006.
Before that, they traveled the county, picking fruit and enjoying the open road, spending time in California with a group called Hilltop Buggy Bums who roamed the desert with dune buggies.
But not anymore. He said he has no job, no retirement and no military benefits.
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"The papers are gone, burned up," Brown said about his futile efforts to prove his eligibility for veterans benefits.
It has been a hard home stretch for Brown, whose life was pock-marked enough after being drafted in 1944.
Brown said he survived World War II on the USS Pensacola and witnessed post-war nuclear bomb blasts at the Bikini Atoll, went through two prior miserable marriages, battled cancer and now suffers from a failing hip.
The Browns' Social Security income of $1,160 a month covers rent, food and utilities, which in the winter is costly because they heat with electricity and the camper has poor insulation.
But their marginal living situation hasn't gone unnoticed.
Following a recent skin cancer treatment, someone from the Tri-Cities Cancer Center in Kennewick called the Knights of Columbus' Hospital Equipment Lend Program to say Brown would be a good candidate for a motorized wheelchair.
The Knights of Columbus sent member Joe Gallegos with the wheelchair. Brown can use it for as long as he wants it.
"Oh boy, that's nice," said Brown after getting the wheelchair last week. Brown has removed the middle seat from an older Dodge Caravan to make room for the wheelchair for trips to the cancer center.
The gratitude and appreciation from people receiving the donated medical items is payback enough, Gallegos said. He lives in Kennewick and retired 11 years ago from the Washington State Patrol.
The group makes the medical equipment lending program available to anyone who needs it, regardless of religious, ethnic or financial criteria. But those who can pay to help support the program are welcome to do so, he added.
Gallegos remembers Brown calling him a few years ago, not in search of medical equipment, but to donate a wheelchair to the Knights lending program.
Gallegos began working with the program regularly about a decade ago. But now the volunteering nearly is a full-time effort, with the Knights having 10 storage units in the Tri-Cities to house donated items.
While the calls for medical equipment come from throughout the Tri-Cities, it isn't unusual to see situations similar to the Browns, where living conditions could be considered marginal.
"Some are pretty bad," Gallegos noted.
But complaining isn't Gene Brown's nature.
He said he has a roof over his head and his wife is near, living next door in a trailer with their two small dogs, Teacup and Bear.
"I'm happy. I lived on a ranch (in Montana) so I know how to take care of myself," he said Monday.
Shirley Brown, 67, brings food to her husband, who favors the bad hip, preferring to stay in the camper where he can smoke in private and has more room to himself.
"She has a lot of stuff," he said.
"I got too much in there," his wife agreed, quickly opening the trailer door to reveal an interior crammed with items.
Shirley said things could be better, like having a bigger trailer and room for a small washer and dryer. But they can't afford to move into another place because their income is limited.
"And I've got two dogs. They're like children. I would not part with them," she said.
-- John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; email@example.com