Paying tribute to local homeless veteran

During a regular sweep of the San Gabriel Valley Riverbed, two officers of the Azusa Police Department (AZPD) met James Kitto, a 62-year-old homeless resident of Azusa, and began the yearlong process of establishing residency for the United States Navy veteran. As of this March, Kitto has been granted his wartime benefit pension and officially moved into his new apartment in the San Dimas area.

Kitto’s pension, provided by the United States Veterans Affairs (VA), is a tax-free monetary housing benefit payable to eligible veterans, according to the official VA website.

On Feb. 22, officers from the AZPD and representatives from the West L.A. VA Community Engagement and Reintegration Services Outreach and Housing Department found Kitto’s site, presented him with the news of relocation and provided transportation during what would be a month-long transition due to a complex VA process.

Kitto had been living in the city of Azusa for nearly 20 years and explained how the last decade of his life spent in the Azusa Canyon had “been pretty tough” through the floods, heat, fires and loss of loved ones. Kitto, overwhelmed by the approval of his eligibility form, said he is appreciative of the help he has received and is looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead.

The effort behind reestablishing Kitto was a collaboration between the AZPD, representatives from the West Los Angeles VA office and the Field of Valor, a local nonprofit organization that helps veterans transition.

Azusa Pacific University and its Campus Safety officers also provided Kitto assistance by giving him a safe place to shower and clean up before moving into his new home.

The AZPD regularly patrols the San Gabriel Valley and other areas in the Azusa community to educate the homeless population of the potential dangers of living in the riverbed and notify them of trespassing regulations. There are over a dozen encampments made up of tents and make-shift shelters in the San Gabriel Valley where Kitto was located, according to the AZPD.

Although homelessness is not a crime, the AZPD has created the HALO—Homeless Assistance Liaison Officers—program to build the community and reach out to those affected by homelessness. The multi-pronged program is the collateral work of Lieutenant Chris Grant, Corporal Andy Rodriquez and Officer Kyle Bailey.

“There are resources; there is help out there to help [people in these] situations,” Bailey said. “It is really up to them to want to take that assistance, and he did that.”

Bailey and Rodriguez became familiar with Kitto during their patrol of the canyon and learned of the time he served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Using some of the HALO program resources, Bailey reached out to the VA Community Engagement and Reintegration Services Outreach and Housing Department.

“He is someone who deserves a second chance,” Bailey said.

Together, Bailey and VA representatives reached out to Kitto and invited him to the VA event “Stand Down,” which is offered throughout the state to gather local veterans and educate attendees on eligibility for benefits. Kitto attended the event this fall and discovered that his previous combat experience in the Vietnam War qualified him for government assistance.

Kitto spent the next six months applying for benefits and working with the AZPD and other homeless outreach groups to find a residency and prevent any harmful housing scams or situations. Finally, after nearly six months, the Department of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services Outreach and Housing secured a new home for Kitto, which he has now fully moved into. Kitto’s benefits from the VA also include communication with local businesses for potential employment.

Azusa Mayor Joseph Rocha expressed the value of working together as a community to improve the livelihood of city residents.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s important [that] people…take the time to get to know those stories even for those who are homeless,” Rocha said.

The city of Azusa recently finished its participation in the annual Los Angeles Homeless Count. Official results of the count will be released later this month by the L.A. Homeless Services Association. However, the AZPD claimed to identify more than 40 individuals, 11 campers, four vans and two vehicles within the city boundaries to be associated with homelessness, which is an increase from recent years.

During this year’s count, very few homeless people accepted the help the city offered, Rocha said. However, he is encouraged that members of the community continued to reach out and invest in people like Kitto, believing “that it speaks volumes of our citizens and our city.”

“Our veterans have had our back and protected us and our country…it’s now our turn to have their back and serve them in any way,” Rocha said.

Azusa will host the 5th annual Veterans Forum on Saturday, June 25, to provide an opportunity for veterans to gather and interact with representatives from the VA office. There will also be breakout sessions on mental illness, women warriors, education, finances and options for homeless veterans. The event is free and is hosted by Congresswoman Grace Napolitano.

“Homelessness is not a police problem but a community problem,” Bailey said.

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