Marion County nonprofits use federal funds to help veterans through pandemic
Federal relief money funneled to local organizations is helping Marion County veterans in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, but those on the front lines of support say the crisis is not over.
Hank Whittier, executive director of Marion County Veterans Helping Veterans, is concerned officials who make financial decisions may believe the worst need has passed.
“We’ve seen an increase in mental health issues and (concerns for) persons with PTSD which might trigger,” he said.
“The problem still exists and people are falling through the cracks. We’ve seen people not going to their medical appointments due to the pandemic and self-isolating,” Whittier said.
Gary Pascale, with Veterans Helping Veterans, believes the actual number of homeless veterans is higher than the figures used by officials.
“We get more homeless veterans using our shower here than the numbers they’re stating,” he said.
Ann parker and Regina Alvers, case managers with the support agency, both have seen COVID-related concerns for the outreach and clients.
Parker cited a case where a veteran with COVID-19 who had been living at the Salvation Army had to be placed in a hotel room for 10 days. Veterans Helping Veterans paid the medical transport and motel bill. She also has seen at least four cases of veterans living in a property that the owner decided to sell rather than rent.
Alvers pointed out that Veterans Helping Veterans and many other nonprofits were not able to hold public events or fundraisers for at least a year and have had to rely on grants.
Vance Larsen is one of scores of homeless veterans placed in housing here and helped with daily needs thanks in part to additional funds through the CARES Act, a federal program to provide grants for agencies, businesses and people impacted by the pandemic.
Larsen had been living on the streets for about three months while suffering from neck and back pain before he recently got into a duplex in northeast Ocala with the help of the housing program from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The program is administered locally by the Florida branch of the nationwide nonprofit Volunteers of America.
“I couldn’t take living in the streets anymore. I’m rebuilding now,” Larsen said.
Larsen, 66, an honorably discharged Vietnam War era Army veteran and former motorsports vehicle shop owner, originally from the Miami area, was involved in an episode in 2001 when his mother was dying that led to a charge of assault on a law enforcement officer and resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.
Larsen heard of veterans programs in Ocala and moved here when he was released from prison in 2016. He relocated locally several times and was working with a local faith-based outreach before he took a job at a horse ranch.
He suffered a neck injury in January 2021 when a horse jerked unexpectedly. A month later he was rear-ended while running an errand in Ocala and his back was hurt.
Larsen was laid off from his job after the injury. In May he lost his apartment when the house was sold by the owner.
He lived in his 2017 Hyundai Accent for a time but the car was repossessed and by July he began living outside near the Ocala-Marion County Library on State Road 40, just east of Southeast 25th Avenue.
“The COVID-19 pandemic made it harder and I had no way to make applications for work or benefits online,” Larsen said.
Larsen said Veterans Helping Veterans, located in the Veterans Resource Center, had helped him previously with a rent payment and later when he was on the street, helped him with daily needs.
Over several weeks, Larsen became depressed with living outside in pain. After an episode seen as a possible suicide attempt, he was hospitalized for three days under the Baker Act for fear he might harm himself.
After the Baker Act hold, Larsen visited the Ocala Ritz Veterans Village, a low-income housing complex with veteran preference, and applied for a rental voucher, operated by Volunteers of America, and applied for rental assistance through a collaborative program by federal agencies called HUD-VASH.
Volunteers of America of Florida, a charitable nonprofit, operates the 50-resident Ritz Veteran Village Historic Inn and adjacent Ritz Reserve building with 12 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, and Ritz Reserve II building with 27 similar units.
Casey Boone, with Volunteers of America, said the agency’s five offices — including sites in Ocala, Gainesville and Lake City — shared a $2 million CARES Act grant that soon expires for veterans’ support and housing programs and administrative expenses.
The agency places an average of 250 homeless veterans annually, with about 69 of those in Ocala.
The CARES Act funding received by Volunteers of America has helped extend additional benefits to those already being served with less restrictions, such as time limits on rent help, Boone explained.
Boone said CARES Act funding paid Larsen’s duplex deposit and first month’s rent. CARES Act money also will help extend extra months to some veterans’ rental payments.
Larsen said he pays 30% of the rent and his utilities. CARES Act funds were outed to nonprofit Marion County Veterans Helping Veterans through a “combination of the community development block and the emergency solutions grant programs,” according to a county spokesperson.
Marion County received $63.8 million CARES Act funds through March 2021. Some of that money has been directed through agencies to help families quickly regain stability after a crisis or becoming homeless.
Larsen and his 6-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Rockiebozo, are settling into their new digs.
“I’d likely be dead if it weren’t for the people who helped me,” he said.