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A 'paramount' push to house and feed more Cape Cod veterans

Jim Seymour became executive director of the Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Center in December.
Jim Seymour became executive director of the Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Center in December.

"In a lot of cases, veterans don't know what their benefits are," says Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Center executive director Jim Seymour. "I hope to change that."

Veteran homelessness is declining for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a Housing and Urban Development, with about 20,000 living in shelters.

The Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Center in Hyannis is working to end homelessness by introducing more veterans to available housing, food and mental-health services.

Many have experienced combat-related trauma, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jim Seymour served eight years as a chaplain in the Navy Reserve, and in December became the organization's executive director. Seymour replaced Joe Taylor, who retired from the role and serves on the board of directors.

Patrick Flanary: What does the executive director role mean for you?

Jim Seymour: I was on the board previously for three-and-a-half years. Our mission is to provide services to veterans who may be at-risk of being homeless or food insecurity, or requiring counseling. It really is paramount for us as we come to work every day to address these needs.

PF: One of the focuses is to end veteran homelessness. How do you do that on the Cape where it's getting less affordable to live?

JS: The simple answer is one veteran at a time. The more complex issue is, how do you put a plan in place that effectively responds to that need? And sometimes when you think about being homeless, it means bouncing from couch to couch; they don't have a place to call their own. The cost of living here is skyrocketing. We look at putting them into a transitional program as we try to move them toward reintegrating into their own place.

PF: What are the changes in store for 2022?

JS: For the first time in quite a while, we're hiring. I'm looking to hire a manager for our outreach program, and that's going to help us identify additional programs that we can use to respond to those needs that veterans may present to us. And we tried to get that off the ground a few years ago and, unfortunately, COVID kind of slowed that process down, but we're eager to get back out there. We're looking at a mobile food pantry that we're putting in place that would address veterans who may be homebound or disabled, sort of like Meals on Wheels. In a lot of cases, veterans don't know what their benefits are.

PF: And what is the greatest need right now, between food security, housing and mental health services?

JS: All three. Mental health has always been a challenge, particularly on the Cape, because of the lack of providers and the higher demand of services. The affordable-housing conversation is probably top of mind. We had a strategic goal at one point of putting a veterans home in every community here on the Cape, and I think we may be looking to modify that and make that more of a regional approach.

PF: How many veterans on the Cape and Islands have you identified without a place to live?

JS: There is not a veteran that is living on the streets, per se, here on the Cape. Are they at-risk? Yes. They may be hard to identify, and I think that's one of the challenges we face as we look at this outreach opportunity that we're creating, is to get out into the community and say, "This is who we are." We've been in business for 39 years and I'm not sure we're well-known throughout the Cape, quite frankly. And I hope to change that. I think the outreach piece for us is critical to look for those folks who could use our services.

PF: What's the biggest misconception about the military today?

JS: That it's their fault that they're in this predicament. Every veteran that we're helping, their story is different. Yes, there is PTSD. But there are others that have fallen on hard times through circumstances maybe not directly attributable to them. I can think of countless veterans in their late 60s and 70s who have found it challenging because maybe a business went bad, they've been through bankruptcy and haven't been able to survive that. Their money ran out. Their benefits ran out. They outlived their pension.

PF: You were a chaplain for many years. How did that shape your role today when it comes to talking to veterans?

JS: I learned early on in my career, as a chaplain and as a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, presence is huge. Just showing up and being there. You build up what I call street cred ahead of the need, and when they need you they recognize who you are and they reach out to you, and you're afforded the opportunity to hopefully help them.

PF: What can we the public do for veterans right now?

JS: Thank them for their service, first and foremost. I appreciate it when I wear something that identifies me with this organization or my past service with the Navy and folks say thank you. And I say, "I appreciate it, it was an honor to serve." And now it's even a greater honor in this role. One of the things that's consistent with everybody who walks through my door who's a veteran is they all raised their hand at one point to help protect and defend our country. And now it's our opportunity to pay that forward and help them in their time of need, and get them back into a healthy, safe environment and a place to call home.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.