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Sonoma County homeless, mental health advocate Cecily Kagy dies unexpectedly at 45

On most weekdays, along with the weekends as circumstances dictated, Cecily Kagy could be found meeting the homeless wherever they were - in their lives and in the community - inviting them to the nearby Starbucks or even her own home.

The homeless outreach specialist for Petaluma-based nonprofit COTS would scour Cotati and Rohnert Park’s miles of creek paths, visit long-established encampments behind the Walmart and find others in need of help tucked away in hidden places around town where they tried to disappear. For two years, hundreds in the two south county cities who counted themselves among the down-and-out population facing financial, addiction or mental health issues could count on something else, too: Kagy came without judgment and knew their plight, having gone through it for years herself.

“For me, the drug addiction and the homelessness went hand in hand. That’s how I lost everything,” Kagy said in an interview this summer, four months before she is thought to have relapsed and died in an apparent drug overdose Dec. 7. “I know what it’s like to have to search for a car that’s abandoned and sleep in that backseat, or have your family be so ashamed of you, or your friends, or be so scared of you because you might rip them off.”

Years after getting clean and becoming stable, Kagy, 45, was beginning to make inroads in her advocate role with the Committee on the Shelterless in a part of Sonoma County that has lacked sufficient homeless services and resources to help people like her get back on their feet. As her often unconventional methods netted undeniable results, she made believers out of even the staunchest skeptics and looked to develop a new model for care that other cities grappling with homelessness could mimic.

Kagy’s eventual recovery and the 10 months she spent in the outreach position motivated public officials to tackle a weighty issue with no easy solution and acted as a symbol that offered others faith in the possibility of a successful path forward.

“She was out here, she was one of us,” said Cotati native Wendy Bruce, 57, who is homeless and has benefited from Rohnert Park’s rapid rehousing program that Kagy helped direct. “She picked herself up and put herself back together, then turned around to come back and help us. She kept me believing in me.”

Still, after more than six years of sobriety, Kagy, a North Bay resident for the better part of the past three decades, acknowledged her ongoing struggle to resist cravings for methamphetamine. Even so, for the close friends and family who knew her distinctive laugh best, the sudden end to Kagy’s efforts with the homeless when she died as a result of the suspected overdose is a nightmare turned reality. The case is still under investigation, according to Cotati police.

“I’ve had this dream so many times before, and I always woke up,” Kyra Caldwell, 24, one of her three daughters, said at a funeral service Wednesday in Sonoma. “I would even call her and say, ‘Mom, I had a bad dream.’ And she’d say, ‘Calm down, I’m still here.’ (Her loss) feels 10 times worse than I ever imagined. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”

More than 100 family members, local government officials and people Kagy helped in her work joined together on the wet, gloomy morning to pack a small funeral hall to pay their respects and tearfully share stories about the colorful, compassionate advocate they eulogized. The minister overseeing the ceremony said at least that same number were unable to attend. She was remembered as the battler who refused to give up or let those she cared about do the same; the longtime friend who would flip her shirt as she walked and gesture with her hands as she spoke; and the mother who - with her dark, self-deprecating humor - would tease her family about how they would miss her when she was gone.

The Gilroy native proudly wore her flaws on her sleeves, and they - as well as an array of star and moon tattoos down the right side of her neck that tucked into her shirt collar - were an essential part of the person they all loved. The kind, caring individual they knew was shaped by a difficult childhood that Kagy described as filled with physical abuse, and family histories of mental illness and suicide she was forced to surmount.

“A person that has experienced pain and suffering and overcome challenges learns lessons. And Cecily learned many, many lessons the hard way,” her brother, Chad Kagy, 41, of Kansas City, Kansas, told the audience. “It was so beautiful to see that she was able to find passion in helping other people. She was able to get people to find hope in themselves and the world.”

As a result, his sister’s death also ripped a hole in the region’s homeless community that grew accustomed to her sometimes brutal honesty and motto of offering a “hand up, not handout.” Some of them had known her - then by her married name, Cecily Brennan - when she was homeless in the area between 2010 and 2013, which family members said was part of a downward spiral in and out of drug rehab. Once again, however, those struggles led to the expertise she was able to pass along to those seeking to escape the cloud of addiction.

Wendy Bruce is one of dozens of people Kagy placed in temporary shelter on their way to more permanent housing, according to COTS. Kagy’s advocacy work also helped convince the Rohnert Park City Council this summer to spend money to secure 12 emergency beds at the Mary Isaac Center in Petaluma, as well as commit to a second year of the $250,000 rapid rehousing program with COTS.

“Cecily was a scrapper,” Rohnert Park Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams said at the ceremony. “She figured out who to call and how to push all the buttons and turn all the levers of government and nonprofit organizations in an effort to help the most vulnerable members of our community.”

While tirelessly helping others improve their circumstances, Kagy was working through the long process of regaining her nursing license, which she said she lost following a state investigation into her excessive use of the opioid oxycodone while she worked as a psychiatric technician at the Sonoma Developmental Center in 2010. Kagy said she sustained a severe back injury in 2001 when she was attacked by a patient while working as a nurse in Napa, which led to her receiving the initial prescription. She later abused the addictive narcotic by injecting it, leaving her arm heavily scarred.

The 1998 suicide of her brother, Scott, one of her three siblings, and that of her biological mother when Kagy was 8 months old, continued to weigh on her. Kagy said she was suicidal as a teen, while forced to stay in a children’s unit at Napa State Hospital, swallowing a sharpened full-length pencil that punctured her left lung and esophagus and led to a lawsuit that moved her out of psychiatric care at 18.

While still with her husband and high school sweetheart, Patrick Brennan, she returned from a stint in rehab and immediately fell into meth use, she said. In 2012, the two were arrested in a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office raid of a Rohnert Park home where they were staying, which landed him behind bars shortly after the birth of their third daughter, Annabelle. Their arrests ended their turbulent, 21-year marriage that included several restraining orders.

“Drugs took us down a horrible path, and domestic violence was very much involved,” Kagy said this summer. “When he went to prison, I wasn’t ready to get clean for another year. But today, I’m here, still slowly recovering.”

She credited a friendship with a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy with her staving off the torments of addiction. Brief work with Lake County Behavioral Health led to courses in Mendocino County to become a drug and alcohol counselor before she eventually landed with COTS. In what she called a “leap of faith,” Kagy moved back to Sonoma County.

Trying to end a cruel cycle, Kagy also stepped up and committed to caring for her now 3-year-old grandson, Brian, whom she adopted after her middle daughter, Shana Brennan, 24, lost him because of her own drug use and related run-ins with the law and homelessness, family members said. Kagy was raising Brian with her partner, Robert Vasquez, in their Cotati home.

After years of petitioning the state for her nursing license, Kagy pressed her case before a review board just weeks before her death and was awaiting a decision by next spring. With that, she had her eyes trained on expanding the services she could provide the homeless population, by opening a local sober living house so women could be reunited with their children.

“She was very proud of her nursing license,” her brother, Chad, said by phone. “That’s why this is so confusing - she was so close to getting that. It’s sad that we’re at this stage.”

Kagy’s family and friends on Wednesday emphasized remembering her not for her tortured life, though they all admitted the loss weighed heavily. The same is true of officials in Rohnert Park and Cotati, who said they are thankful to have had her working in their communities, while also recognizing the great sadness her inexplicable departure has created for so many.

“I accidentally landed in this profession,” Kagy said this summer after another trip around Rohnert Park reconnecting with the homeless community she cared about so deeply. “And I absolutely love what I do, but it is on some days very gut-wrenching and … soul-sucking. You have to be really careful about letting the job get to you. You have to have safeguards in place.

“I enjoy being able to give back and not have any judgment,” she added. “I see light in people when others cannot see it. Others don’t see it, but I do.”

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