Volunteers of America works to care for homeless veterans

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DENVER -- Homeless veterans in the Denver area had plenty of places to find a free meal and discounts on Veteran's Day, but a lunch at the Volunteers of America sought to connect them with services that can change their lives year round.

The Epicurian Catering food truck brought a special veterans day lunch to the Volunteers of America mission on Tuesday in order to serve the veterans who need it most. The special meal was also a place where Volunteers of America could help connect homeless vets with programs designed to get them off the streets.

"It's a blessing," said Randy Clark, a homeless Navy Vet. "We have a shelter to keep us warm. We have people like this out here passing out food to make sure we have full stomachs."

It's been two months since Clark lost his home in Arvada, and it's just the latest of several loses he's endured in the past year.

"My wife passing away, losing my job, paying all the bills - I had to pay all that off - just put me ... here," he said.

Though he never imagined spending veterans day at the mission, Clark was hardly complaining.

"It was hard at first but then it becomes humbling because you see other vets that are out there," Clark said.

Erma McCalister, who helps administer veterans programs for Volunteers of America, said homeless veterans are a growing problem in the metro area.

"We've seen an increase, just in the past year, about a good 20 percent," McCalister said.

According to the last count by Volunteers of America there were at least 650 veterans who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness in the Denver area, and that was before the weather turned so bitter cold.

"When it's hot they can find a place to go, but when it's cold, that's when we see an increase," McCalister said. "They don't really have a place to go."

Volunteers of America is working with the Veterans Administration to get homeless vets off the streets. Though there are many complex reasons why vets are homeless, new federal grants are geared at making housing the first priority in their rehabilitation.

"We believe that once you get them into housing, we can service the rest of that and get them the services that they need," McCalister said.

Clark was among those who learned about the programs for the first time on Tuesday.

"This made a lot of significance. It touched my heart," Clark said. "There's a lot of VA guys out here walking around, cold, I wish they would have came down here."

In a few months Volunteers of America will have a one-stop shop where veterans can go to receive services and learn about programs that will get them back on their feet. The Veteran Service Center is currently under construction at Sante Fe Drive and West 12th Avenue in Denver.