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Faith for the homeless: Nursing group offers hope in troubled times

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
Barlow Carper, 69, was heartbroken when his sister sold the two-acre family property in Sweet Home, where he’d lived for most of his life, and told him he’d have to move. He had nowhere else to go.
“I didn’t know what I was gonna do with me and my two dogs,” he said. “I figured I’d probably be with my dogs on the street looking for a dinner.”
But Kiersten Erickson wasn’t going to let that happen. As a former licensed massage therapist who’d spent 20 years in trauma orthopedics in inner cities, she was all too familiar with trauma. And as Carper’s neighbor, who took him to run errands when needed, she had a front-row seat to his dilemma.
“An upcoming trauma was about ready to happen,” she said, “so I called the trauma team.”

Barlow Carper embraces one of his dogs, Turbo, at his new apartment.

Erickson is one of the newest members of that team, the Lebanon-based Faith Community Health Network, a local nonprofit that organizes nurses in faith communities to promote health, provide support and connect people to resources and healthcare. Faith community nursing is a recognized specialty acquired through the completion of the Foundations of Faith Community Nursing course. It allows nurses and health ministers to provide care to their congregation and community by recognizing not only the wellness of the mind and body, but of the spirit as well.
Carper’s days in his longtime family home were peaceful but challenging. He enjoyed fishing off the Santiam River in his backyard and taking casual drives through the county. He also liked to watch TV while sitting in his recliner, which doubled as his bed.
That chair was Carper’s only safe place, he said, where he found relief from breathing difficulties caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and the pains in his neck and shoulders. It also occupied the only dry spot in the house, which had a bit of a leaking problem.
“There were buckets all over in there for catching water,” FCHN founder Deb Fell-Carlson recalled. “The roof leaked like a sieve.”
Although her team wasn’t initially designed to place homeless people in apartments, Fell-Carlson and her partners in prayer worked on Carper’s behalf. He became the second person they’d helped find a space to call his own.

Deb Fell-Carlson works with Ron Steele. Provided photo

The first was Ron Steele, who lived by himself in a motorhome with no heat or running water. After he showed his weeping diabetic ulcers to Fell-Carlson’s husband, Mike, the FCHN immediately rallied to get him medical help and into emergency housing at a motel. Eight months later, he had a third-floor apartment at Lebanon’s Applegate Landing.
According to Fell-Carlson, Steele found climbing those floors daunting, but a year later he’s running up those steps. He also has since acquired teeth, glasses, foot care and a pool membership.
FCHN had barely started organizing when Steele crossed its path, and it was already onto its second crisis, with Carper, as his predecessor settled into his new living situation.
Carper, who said he’s “over the hill and twice as dusty,” couldn’t believe how quickly it all progressed.
“None of us could,” said Tawni Pfaff, a part of Carper’s FCHN team.
But Erickson said she learned how to be a persistent squeaky wheel that gets what she needs from resources such as the Veterans Association. The rest was achieved through prayer.
“It’s the prayer of the group,” Fell-Carlson said. “It’s the prayer warriors behind it.”
Carper was in emergency housing for only two-and-a-half weeks before an apartment became available. That was a miracle in itself, according to Erickson, because waiting lists normally take 24 months. However, the person ahead of him declined the unit.
So, on June 13, Carper moved into his new home, though at first, he didn’t think he’d be happy.
“I really couldn’t comprehend myself getting out of this place,” he said of his family’s property. “I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. It was a beautiful place.”
But now he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night filled with happiness. He’s got his dogs, some new friends and a roof over his head.
“I can’t believe how things are going so well for me,” he said. “It just blows me away. I’ve got beautiful friends. I wish they had more people like them that do what they’re doing.”

Barlow Carper enjoys a rest on a rocking chair outside his new apartment complex. A few days later he got a fresh haircut. Provided photo

Fell-Carlson recalled how the team helped Carper move, and how he was a little unsteady on his feet, thanks to his COPD, which caused him to stoop to breathe and left him little walking ground before needing help from his inhaler.
But now the women of FCHN – Fell-Carlson, Erickson and Pfaff – rave about his improved health. Fell-Carlson recalled an incident where she went to retrieve him and expected she’d have to help him from the apartment. Instead, she found him “bouncing down the sidewalk.”
“We’ve come a long way,” Erickson said.
Carper used to not be able to sit and talk without his oxygen, Pfaff said. They all believe mold in his house was causing much of his problem.
“He’s turned the corner just getting him out of that toxic environment,” she said.
Even his relationship with his sister has improved, Carper said, and he thanked her for selling the property because it ultimately landed him in a better place.
The FCHN team in Lebanon is made up of members with varied backgrounds who serve in different faith communities. They see people at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, visit folks in the hospital and provide hygiene packs for the homeless. While housing the homeless isn’t its central role – one that is quite “intense” to accomplish, Fell-Carlson noted – it has made all the difference for Steele and Carper.
“It’s exciting,” Fell-Carlson said. “Giving them hygiene packs is important, but I’d rather give them a house.”
She envisions having FCHN teams in every faith community and is working toward that goal.
“Imagine how this community would change if we had more of us,” she said.
“It takes a village,” Pfaff added, “and that’s what we are.”
Courses through Zoom for the Foundations for Faith Community Nursing and Foundations for Health Ministry are offered yearly, and the next one begins at the end of August. For more information, contact Fell-Carlson at (541) 248-0595, or email [email protected].