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.”