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Vegas Strong Fund pays 12 Las Vegas shooting victims — then stops

Updated December 29, 2017 - 7:15 pm

P.J. DeMasseo, a survivor of the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting, cashed a check for $1,000 Friday from the Vegas Strong Fund.

He is one of 12 people who received checks this week from the nonprofit totaling $14,800.

He also could be one of the last.

The checks — ranging in amounts from $200 to $3,900 — mark the first distributions to Oct. 1 victims by a nonprofit established in response to the shooting. But it was unclear Friday whether additional victims would receive money from the fund.

The Vegas Strong Fund is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit created by the Nevada resort industry after the shooting. The Las Vegas Victims’ Fund, a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has raised more than $22 million for victims of the Strip mass shooting — and gained far more attention than the Vegas Strong Fund — isn’t expected to distribute money until March. Many victims have expressed concern with that timeline because they have immediate financial needs, and others won’t qualify for assistance from the Victims’ Fund at all.

Enter the Vegas Strong Fund. The $14,800 came from more than $12 million in commitments and cash collected so far. Most recipients will not qualify for assistance from the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund, which will benefit those who suffered physical injuries and the families of those killed.

The Vegas Strong Fund cut the 12 checks at the request of two survivors of the shooting, Jennifer Holub and Christine Caria, and a victim advocate, Anita Busch.

The three spoke with members of the Vegas Strong Fund Oct. 20 over the phone, informing them of the vast financial needs of many shooting survivors.

“We explained that people are living out of their cars, afraid of being evicted and some lost their jobs because of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Holub said. They asked the Vegas Strong Fund to help by distributing funds to people who need food and housing among other immediate needs.

Teaming up

The day after Holub, Caria and Busch spoke with members of the Vegas Strong Fund, a representative of the fund said in an email obtained by the Review-Journal, “The members of the Vegas Strong Fund are very willing to work with you and your group to help those survivors and families that need immediate assistance.”

The three women immediately began reaching out to acquaintances who needed help and asked how much money they needed for food, shelter or other needs. They passed that information along to their contacts at the Vegas Strong Fund.

Then word of the potential help began spreading to people the women didn’t know directly.

So the women began vetting people. They looked at documentation submitted to the Nevada Victims of Crime program. They looked at Facebook pages, had people send photos or videos and checked their names with people they knew were at the event.

“It took us about two to three days. Hours and hours, and hours,” Busch said. (Wes Rand/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

‘Huge help’

DeMasseo was living in Montana in September and was planning to move to Las Vegas at the end of this year using the money he made from working the Route 91 Harvest festival as a bartender.

Instead, he used the money to start a new life in Oregon, where he has been living out of his car.

PTSD has made finding work in Oregon a challenge, he said.

When he first received the check he said “it didn’t seem real.”

“I didn’t really have any hope for anything but being swept under a rug,” he said.

He is trying to get by with temporary jobs while he looks for full-time work and receives mental health counseling.

“A lot of us need help. The majority of us (who worked the night of the shooting) have been out of work, because we’re just emotionally not able to work, or not physically able to work,” DeMasseo said. Tasks that used to be mundane take a lot more effort now, he said, and loud noises and random visuals trigger anxiety.

“I’m going to put the money ($1,000) aside to help me get a place to rent,” he said.

Between Sunday and Friday, the three women submitted claims for an additional 17 individuals totalling $40,222.43 and notified the victims.

“People were so, so grateful for this help,” Holub said. “They thanked us a million times.”

But help might not come to those 17 people after all. (Wes Rand/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

No more checks

A member of the Vegas Strong Fund emailed the women Friday morning.

“The Vegas Strong Fund is analyzing a number of requests for continued support and evaluating how to have the most positive impact for all victims,” the email said. “The board of the Vegas Strong Fund is not, however, comfortable with continuing to issue checks to survivors because we are not in a position to either vet these claims or accommodate all the financial requests you and your team are submitting.”

Caesars Entertainment Corp. executive Jan Jones Blackhurst, the chairwoman of the fund, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Caitlin Brunner, a Henderson single mother who was a bartender at the festival, estimated that she is about $2,200 behind in her rent and utilities. She said she has also struggled to work as much as she’d like because of PTSD caused by the shooting.

She said she was so relieved when she found out money was available for her and that it was on its way.

“I was finally going to be able to catch up,” she said. “I really need that money. Now I’m stressed again. I had all my bills paid in my head. And now I don’t have anything.”

Holub said now the group is “back to square one” in getting financial assistance to people who don’t qualify for the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund.

“We hope to find another source that is sitting on funds gathered in our names to help,” she said. “We are broken, battered and not being taken care of like we and the public would expect.”

Holub said she feels “devastated” at having to go back and tell those 17 people that help isn’t available.

“So many people have had so many broken promises for help,” Holub said. “We are worried about mental health and suicides in regards to these individuals on the verge of losing their homes.”

Contact Nicole Raz at nraz@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @JournalistNikki on Twitter.

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