Hank Whittier, executive director of Veterans Helping Veterans, pictured in 2017, is concerned that officials making financial decisions may believe the dire hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Federal aid, channeled 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 that officials making financial decisions may believe the worst of hardship is over.

“We have seen an increase in mental health problems and (concerns for) people with PTSD that could trigger,” he said.

“The problem is still there and people are falling through the cracks. We have seen people fail to go to their doctor’s appointments and self-isolate because of the pandemic, “Whittier said.

Gary Pascale of Veterans Helping Veterans believes the actual number of veterans homeless is higher than the numbers used by officials.

“We’re getting more homeless veterans using our shower here than the numbers they give,” he said.

Ann Parker and Regina Alvers, case managers at the support agency, have both identified COVID-related concerns for public relations and customers.

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Parker cited a case where a veteran with COVID-19 who had lived with the Salvation Army had to be housed in a hotel room for 10 days. Veterans Aid Veterans paid the ambulance and motel bills. She has also seen at least four cases of veterans living in a property the owner wanted to sell rather than rent.

Alvers pointed out that Veterans Helping Veterans and many other nonprofits were unable to hold public events or fundraisers for at least a year and were dependent on grants.

Vance Larsen is one of many homeless veterans housed here in shelters who are helped with day-to-day needs thanks to additional funding from the CARES Act, a federal grant-making program to government, business and pandemic people.

Larsen had lived on the street for about three months, suffering from neck and back pain, before he recently moved into a semi-detached house in northeast Ocala with the help of the Department of Veterans Affairs housing program. The program is administered locally by the Florida branch of the statewide nonprofit volunteers of America.

“I couldn’t take life on the street anymore. I’m building now, “said Larsen.

Larsen, 66, an honorable discharged Vietnam War veteran and former owner of a motor sports vehicle store originally from the Miami area, was involved in an episode in 2001 when his mother was dying that led to an assault charge against one Law enforcement officers resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.

Larsen heard about veterans programs in Ocala and moved here when he was released from prison in 2016. He moved on-site several times and worked with a local denomination before taking a job on a horse ranch.

He sustained a neck injury in January 2021 when a horse twitched unexpectedly. A month later, he was stopped on an errand in Ocala and his back was injured.

Larsen was fired from his job after being injured. He lost his home in May when the house was sold by the owner.

He lived in his 2017 Hyundai Accent for a while, but the car was repossessed and in July he began living outside near the Ocala-Marion County Library at 40 State Road, east of Southeast 25th Avenue.

“The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult and I had no way of submitting a work or benefit application online,” said Larsen.

Larsen said Veterans Helping Veterans, which is located at the Veterans Resource Center, helped him with daily needs previously with a rent payment and later when he was on the street.

For several weeks, Larsen became depressed because he lived outside in pain. After an episode that was viewed as a possible suicide attempt, he was hospitalized for three days under the Baker Act for fear of harming himself.

Under the Baker Act, Larsen visited the Ocala Ritz Veterans Village, a low-income, veteran-preference community, and applied for a rental voucher operated by Volunteers of America and applied for rental assistance through a federal agency program called HUD-VASH.

Volunteers of America of Florida, a nonprofit nonprofit organization, operates the Ritz Veteran Village Historic Inn with 50 residents and the adjacent Ritz Reserve building with 12 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments and the Ritz Reserve II building with 27 similar units.

Casey Boone of Volunteers of America said the agency’s five offices – including locations in Ocala, Gainesville, and Lake City – shared a $ 2 million CARES Act grant that will soon be used for veteran’s support and housing programs as well as for administrative costs expires.

The agency places an average of 250 homeless veterans annually, about 69 of them in Ocala.

The CARES law funding that Volunteers of America received has helped extend additional benefits to those already cared for with fewer restrictions, such as:

Boone said the CARES Act funding had paid Larsen’s duplex deposit and first month’s rent. The money from the CARES bill will also help extend the rental payments of some veterans for an additional month.

Larsen said he pays 30% of the rent and his utilities. CARES Act funds were given to nonprofit Marion County Veterans Helping Veterans through a “combination of the community development bloc and emergency solution grant programs,” according to a county spokesman.

Marion County received $ 63.8 million from CARES through March 2021. Some of this money was channeled through agencies to help families quickly regain stability after a crisis or homelessness.

Larsen and his 6-year-old Jack Russell terrier Rockiebozo are settling in their new digs.

“I would probably be dead if it weren’t for the people who helped me,” he said.