Help for homeless veterans

The Ocala Grant Per Diem program, through Volunteers of America, provides clinical treatment, transitional housing and case management services.

File photo: The Ritz Historic Inn is shown on East Silver Springs Boulevard in Ocala on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted August 31, 2023 | By Andy Fillmore

Gale Henderson served active duty in the U.S. Army from 1979 to 1982 and several years in reserve duty. He worked in golf course maintenance until he suffered from congestive heart failure.

“I kept getting tired easily,” said Henderson, 60. He had heart valve replacement surgery in September 2022 and his world began to unwind.

Henderson ultimately had to stop working and said he made some bad financial decisions on his homestead. He said that after family members and friends failed to step up to help, he found himself on the street.

“About three months ago, I was at a park in northeast Ocala, and I broke down in tears,” he said.

Henderson said he was always a hard worker and was usually the helper, not the one needing help. He tried to return to work after the valve replacement but was too weak. He was told to try the Salvation Army for help. He was immediately taken in and later was contacted by a representative of Volunteers of America, the nonprofit that offers the Grant Per Diem, or GPD, program for veterans like Henderson at the Ritz Historic Inn, an Ocala landmark on East Silver Springs Boulevard.

“The Ocala GPD program provides clinical treatment, transitional housing, and case management services to homeless veterans,” according to “(The program is) assisting veterans in identifying personal goals relating to education, employment, health, entitled benefits, spirituality, relationships, and community participation. Program fees are based on income.” 

Some amenities for qualified veterans in the program include case management, a two-bedroom shared unit, laundry appliances on site, basic paid utilities, Bible study and more.

Henderson said he’s learning to eat healthier and live on a budget, which, he said, he “never had to before.”

“It’s like starting over again,” he said.

Henderson has been in the GPD program for about three months and plans to transition to an apartment in the adjacent Ritz Reserve Apartments by December.

Mark Knapp, a medical doctor and retired chief medical officer (CMO) at the Ocala Veteran’s Administration clinic in The Cascades, holds a monthly seminar at the Ritz for veterans in the GPD program. He said he held the seminars while serving as CMO of the clinic and “only missed one session in 13 years and my wife (Debbie) held it.”

Dolly Locklear, with Volunteers of America and the program manager at the Ritz, said Knapp “has never missed a beat” holding the healthy living seminars as both CMO and as a volunteer.

Knapp stated in a text that a VA psychiatrist has spoken at seminars over the last several years.

“Dr. Reddy Pasem, who worked at both the Ocala and The Villages VA clinic(s) has been the most frequent visitor and he has spoken repeatedly over the last three years on PTSD, depression and other mental health disorders and treatments,” Knapp stated.

Knapp said seminar topics have included diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and PTSD, and that planned talks will cover audiology and optometry.

Army veteran Elbert Mills poses in front of the Ritz Historic Inn on Aug. 29, 2023. [Andy Fillmore]

“Every September, the Ocala VA provides nurses that administer influenza vaccines at the Ritz,” he wrote.

Knapp commented on the impact of the monthly healthy living gatherings, which include an opening group prayer, dinner and fellowship among the attendees.

“By improving one’s medical conditions, getting diabetes and high blood pressure under control and improving one’s mental health, for example, treating PTSD, veterans will be more successful in transitioning out of the Ritz program,” Knapp stated.

Knapp called the attendees a “success story” during the COVID-19 pandemic because, following safe practices, “no one was hospitalized.”

“(Knapp) has been absolutely phenomenal,” with his contribution to the veterans in the program, Locklear said.

Jimmy Palmer attended the most recent seminar.

“I came to the Ritz two years ago with a half-gallon bottle of whiskey,” said Palmer who plans to celebrate two years of sobriety on Oct. 21.

The August seminar gave 13 attendees an update on COVID-19 boosters and included an interactive discussion on sodium in foods purchased at the grocery store, from potato chips to beans and soup.

Knapp asked the group to look at some sample cans or bags and look at the labels for the number of servings and total amount of sodium (salt) in each serving to monitor daily total sodium intake.

Elbert Mills, 67, an Army veteran who served from 1975 to 1982, has been in the GPD program since March. He said he hopes to transition out by November. He feels the Ritz program has been a great help and said Knapps’ seminars have been “very much” a help.

“Structure and accountability,” Mills said, were benefits of the program.

To learn more about the GPD Program at the Ritz Historic Inn, call (352) 562-7872.

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