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Santa Rosa homeless community honors Kellie Jones, known in camps for fierce loyalty to friends

Under the shade of redwood trees, more than two dozen friends and family came together Sunday in Santa Rosa’s Olive Park to remember Kellie Jones, the 43-year-old woman slain in a homeless camp tragedy March 23, as a fiercely loyal friend who was fond of dirty jokes and making others smile.

Jones was a fixture in the city’s homeless community, friends, family and social workers said in a series of speeches, where she was known to be caring and protective and to have a big personality.

She was the kind of person who would take off her coat and give it to another who was cold, her friend Nina Butterfly said during a tear-filled remembrance.

“I know this because she did it for me a number of times,” Butterfly said.

Butterfly has taken over care of Jones’ dog Scooby, who was in attendance at the Celebration of Life service. When Jones’ friend played a video clip of the dead woman’s voice over the speakers, Scooby whimpered.

Jones was killed when a dispute between two men in a small homeless encampment along Roberts Avenue turned violent, with one of the men plowing his car into the camp, police believe.

Several people at Sunday’s memorial service blamed Santa Rosa and Sonoma County’s clearing of homeless encampments for putting Jones at risk, saying she would not have been camping along Roberts Avenue had it not been for such sweeps.

Jones was born in Petaluma but lived most of her life in Santa Rosa, save for a brief stint in Tennessee and occasional time in Humboldt County, said Rhonda Robbins, who dated Jones’ brother for many years and called Jones her sister-in-law. Jones had two children. In Humboldt County, Jones had a network of friends and family, Robbins said, but her heart was in Santa Rosa with her other family — the city’ homeless community.

The last time Robbins saw her lifelong friend — the two had become friends when they were 12 — was on Robbins’ birthday, Feb. 7. The two visited a casino and then Jones asked to be taken home.

“I dropped her off in Santa Rosa at 2 a.m. and never saw her again,” Robbins said. “Other people needed her more than me,” she said.

“She loved her homeless people,” Robbins said.

They loved her back. The woman knew everyone in that community, several social workers who spoke said, making her an asset at attempts to distribute food, care and services in Santa Rosa’s shifting homeless encampments.

A few days before Jones’ death, Sonoma County Acts of Kindness volunteer Zoe Kessler spotted her “dressed to the nines,” she recalled. “She had her hair done and she had a big smile on her face. She looked like she was on top of the world,” Kessler said, which was how she’d choose to remember her.

Jones was known to sing aloud, even in the early morning hours. David Sjoberg recalled her waking up him and other campmates at 6 a.m. “She wasn’t even an alarm clock,” he said, “she was a lullaby.”

Like others who shared camps with Jones, Tammy Burton remembered her loyalty.

“She’d stick up for you,” Burton said.

When Burton, an artist, sold her first painting, Jones was the first one she told, Burton said. The last time Burton saw her, she gifted Jones a treasured earring. On March 23, the night Jones died, Burton was heading into the encampment where Jones was staying. She turned back when she saw the flashing police lights, Burton said.

Police suspect that Clifford Adams, 53, gunned his car toward a man with whom he had been fighting moments before at the edge of the roadside encampment. Adams’ car injured the leg of the man police believe was his intended target.

The car plowed into the encampment and trapped Jones, who died before firefighters could free her, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Adams fled, but was arrested seven days later near Sacramento, police said. He has been charged with murder and attempted murder. Adams too, was known to some in attendance at the service.

Jones’ death was “tragic and early and horrifying and infuriating,” Reverand Kate Sefton of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, said. Her life was robbed “by other people’s fears and other people’s actions,” Sefton said, in a world where “shelter and belongings are swept away by frightened and uneducated people calling for government actions.”

Several speakers and others in interviews said Jones was left vulnerable by government sweeps that bounce the city’s homeless residents into dangerous areas like roadside encampments. Jones, for example, had stayed in Olive Park — out of reach, presumably, of a vehicular assault — but was swept out of it, Heather Jackson with Sonoma County Acts of Kindness said.

“Had she not been swept from a safe space to a city street she would have been fine,” Jackson said. Other attendees cited sweeps of multiple camps on Joe Rodota trail and an encampment in a Roseland parking lot that swelled before it was broken up in April 2018. Jones had been in most of those camps, attendees say.

The funeral came at the end of a week in which the Santa Rosa Police Department cleared out a number of streetside homeless encampments in Highway 101 underpasses — one of which had also seen a vehicular assault in recent weeks. The sweeps displaced at least 54 people, the number contacted by Catholic Charities during the event. Thirteen of those people were moved into the city’s homeless shelter, according to the charity.

If the camps can be dangerous, they also make for the close knit community that came together in Olive Park on Sunday afternoon, speakers like Sjoberg said. Jones served as a crass, spunky matriarch. “There isn’t anything Kellie wouldn’t do for anyone out here,” Sjoberg said.

Toward the end of the speeches, the de facto sister, Robbins, held a phone to the microphone and played a video of Jones telling a racy joke unfit for print. But the sound crackled over the park and Jones was able to make her friends laugh one more time.

Staff Photographer Beth Schlanker contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosa, its policy and politics, crime and its economy affect the lives of North Bay residents both inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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