Family warns ignoring homeless could lead to 'another body in the morgue'

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Family warns about homelessness after brother's death
13 Investigates the 106 homeless deaths in Harris County this year. The family of one tells us, "they're mentally ill. They're homeless. They may be sick. They die on the street. Is it possible that they could die and no one ever find them?"

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Katrena Curtis walked upstairs into her brother's room and found a folder with his name on the outside. When she opened it, there was a handwritten note tucked between some of his sketches.

Her brother, Jason Cavitt, couldn't read or write well. He had an intellectual development disorder, and his family said he dropped out of high school when he was in 10th grade.

Still, he managed to put his feelings on that piece of paper.

"First of all, Jason was a good son, but he was a hard head growing up," the note started.

From there, it outlined Jason's struggles. He drank a lot. He used meth. He was living on the streets. And despite his parents trying to get him a job, he couldn't keep it. His fiancée introduced him to meth. He went to jail. Then rehab.

Just when he thought he had turned his life around, "it was too late," the note said.

Last November, when Cavitt lived in the upstairs bedroom of his parent's home, he started reflecting on his life. He just turned 40 and wanted a wife and kids. He regretted wasting his life on drugs and living on the streets. He felt alone. He reached out for help, and his family sought it out for him.

Still, it wasn't enough.

At the top of the note his sister found were the words "Obituary Jason Cavitt."

He wrote it weeks before he became homeless again last December.

Jason Cavitt died while homeless on Jan. 15, 2020. His family says he wrote his own obituary while living at their home, shortly thereafter he started living on the streets again.

Cavitt died about a month later on Jan. 15, 2020, of a drug overdose. He was found in an alleyway near a flower shop in the 4800 block of Fannin Street in Houston.

"Jason knew what he wanted to say. He knew what he wanted to leave behind if something would happen to him and he knew what he wanted us to know. He knew the story he wanted us to share," Curtis said. "Even though he had problems writing and reading, he wrote that down and that was his words that came from his heart, his spirit."

Watch the devastating video of a father reading the obituary his son wrote for himself before dying. The son was homeless off and on for years, but his family thought it all had finally turned it around. They were wrong.

Cavitt is one of 106 people this year in Harris County who died while they were homeless, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. That's one homeless death every three days.

Nearly 40 percent of homeless deaths this year were due to drug and alcohol abuse, making it the leading cause of death among homeless Houstonians, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of homeless deaths data.

Harris County homeless deaths are on pace to exceed last year, when 118 people died while homeless. The death count has been increasing every year since 2017 when 81 homeless people died countywide.

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Leonard Kincaid, executive director of Houston Recovery Center, said he's been in the field for more than 30 years and the entire time there's been a need for more resources for people suffering from drug addiction, especially in the homeless population.

"There is a lack of resources sufficient to respond to the needs across this community at every level of care, detox, residential, outpatient, at every level of care, but there are resources out there," said Kincaid, whose center works with law enforcement to connect people with addiction and mental health issues to resources that respond to their needs.

Navigating the system

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the streets of downtown Houston aren't bustling with the usual traffic and workers.

But, Captain John Moritz, who runs Harris County Constable Precinct 1's Homeless Outreach Team, said with more people struggling with job loss and stability, there are more homeless people on the streets, including buildings lined with cardboard boxes sheltering unhoused residents.

Moritz volunteers as a reserve deputy downtown, where he's come to know many homeless Houstonians on a first-name basis.

On Friday, 13 Investigates shadowed Moritz as he parked his vehicle next to an open downtown parking lot where two men were sitting on a concrete parking block.

A man walked by and stopped to talk to Moritz. After a few minutes, the volunteer deputy gave the man, John Hughes, a backpack and some new T-shirts.

"You're very nice. I appreciate you," Hughes said.

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Sometimes Moritz gives homeless individuals hygiene and personal care items. Other times, he finds intoxicated people living on the streets and connects them with resources.

A short while after helping Hughes, Moritz approached a man in a red plaid shirt, who was staggering and slightly slurring his words.

The guy asks if he's going to jail and Mortiz tells him, "no."

INTERACTIVE: From dying of a drug overdose in an empty field to suffering from heart disease or other health issues, the map below provides a look at the 106 people in Harris County who died while homeless so far this year. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

Instead, they give him the option to go to a nearby sobering center to get evaluated, fearing he might stumble into the street and get hit by a car.

This year, 11 homeless people died in motor vehicle accidents, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences.

"Obviously he's high on something," Moritz said. "This is the high Kush (drug) area here, so we want to get him off the street so he doesn't endanger somebody else or himself."

The goal of patrolling downtown isn't to arrest people, Moritz said. During his two and a half years with the program, he's only had to arrest one individual, who turned violent.

"(It) doesn't solve the problem," he said. "Number one, the jail won't accept them, and number two, you really need to resource people out of the problem and the jail is not a resource."

Kincaid said even if a homeless person wants to seek help, it's not always easy for them to find.

"For the homeless population specifically, it really is a challenge for them to know how to navigate this system," he said. "There are resources that (a) person could get access to if they knew -- if they only had somebody to help them navigate."

When Jason decided he needed help again last December, his parents said he told them that meant getting arrested for a minor crime so he could get drug treatment. But, his parents ruled out a purposeful arrest and long-term mental health treatment was financially out of reach.

"There should have been a place where he could have gone to receive help because he was crying out for help," Cavitt said.

'Another body in the morgue'

On Jan. 15, 2019, Curtis' daughter woke her up from a nap and told her police were down stairs saying "Uncle Jason" was dead.

When she went downstairs, a deputy was standing in the front doorway, and her mom was on the floor screaming, "No, Jason. No. No. No."

"I said 'Are you serious? Please tell me, is this a mistake," Curtis said. "I just kind of paused because I couldn't really cry. I just went into shock mode. ... Like we haven't seen him. We've been looking for him and now you're telling me my brother is gone. He's dead."

Jason's family was notified the same day he died. But that's not always the case, especially whenever a homeless person doesn't have an ID.

Moritz said most homeless people don't have IDs because they get either lost or stolen. He works with the community to provide Homeless Outreach Team IDs that are sanctioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety and verified by fingerprints taken on site. The IDs can help residents when they're trying to apply for housing or get medication, which can eventually help them get off the streets.

"About 30% of the people you see out here are former offenders," Moritz said. "When they leave the prison system, they get an offender ID and that serves as a first form of ID. You really need to have two (forms of ID) in order to do anything."

Still, not every homeless person wants to get off the streets. Moritz said he worries about the people who will be living outside when winter brings cooler temperatures.

Another benefit of the identification cards is how they help law enforcement identify homeless people after they die.

RELATED: A homeless Houstonian died every 3 days in 2019

Mortiz said whenever they find a homeless Houstonian dead, they make every attempt at the scene to identify them, but if that isn't possible, they stay in touch with the medical examiner's office to try and identify family members when next of kin is known.

It's not always easy for law enforcement and the local medical examiner's office to find next of kin for homeless people, even after they've been identified.

In October, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences needed the public's help finding relatives for two men who died on the streets of Houston.

Coalition for the Homeless, a Houston-based nonprofit, said it manages a system where direct service agencies in Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties can enter information about clients into a Homeless Management Information System.

The Coalition said it fields requests from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences for emergency contact information for homeless individuals. But, the Coalition said whether or not the emergency contact is notified after a client dies depends on if they have an active case with an agency that provides services and if that agency has a policy to inform family members.

Jason's family took him to a hospital for mental health treatment about a month before he died, but due to patient privacy, Jason's family initially had no clue what facility he was transferred to or when he was discharged.

"If he had not had a mother and a father and a home, he probably would have just been dead on that street and another body in the morgue that couldn't have been identified," Jason's dad, Leon Cavitt Jr. said. "What about all the other homeless people out there who can't get the help that they need? They're mentally ill. They're homeless. They may be sick. They die on the street. Is it possible that they could die and no one ever find them?"

Drug addiction

When he couldn't sleep at night, Leon would get in his car at 3 o'clock in the morning and drive all over Houston looking for his son at different encampments, asking other homeless residents if they knew a guy named "Jason Cavitt."

Sometimes Leon would find his son and bring him home, but the next morning Jason would be gone again. At times, the family went two or three years without seeing their son.

It became the family's routine.

"A lot of crying myself to sleep at night. Couldn't sleep at night. My frustration was just missing him and the pain of not knowing where he was," Jason's mom, Cheryl Cavitt said. "When it would get cold ... as a mom, (I wondered) 'where is he sleeping? Is he sleeping on the streets? Is he warm?' So it was a lot of sadness."

Jason was in and out of homelessness his entire adult life as he struggled with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and drug addiction. He tried rehab three or four times before. This last time, he moved back home with his parents after finishing the program.

Jason Cavitt's certificate of completion from a drug rehab program.

Jason's family said he was sober for more than six months when they noticed his behavior started to change. He was using again and fell back into a depression.

Kincaid said recovery is a lifelong journey and although a drug or alcohol abuser may feel like they've been "fixed" once treatment is over, that's really just when the hard work begins.

"There are pitfalls on the road beyond treatment," he said. "They're back out in the community and they've got to make a decision about what they're going to do every day and they're trying to stay clean and sober."

Curtis said she was proud of her brother the last time he finished a recovery program. This time, she said, he was adamant about staying sober because he wanted to be a drug counselor and help the other people he saw on the streets.

"He said that's what helped me, to be able to talk to other people who knew where I've been," Curtis said. "They didn't judge me. They didn't look at me any different like, 'Oh, he's a drug addict, he's a crackhead.' He said (his counselors) didn't treat him like that. They have open arms and that's what he wanted to do for other people."

When Jason slipped up after more than six months of sobriety, Curtis said her brother became depressed and would cry about how he let everyone down.

Kincaid said sometimes it takes multiple trips to a rehab facility before the sobriety sticks. But, it's important to help homeless people with drug and alcohol rehabilitation before it's too late and they die of an overdose.

"The earlier you can get help, the better, but it's never too late to start the journey," he said. "We don't give up on people no matter how long they've been using. Whether it's been 30 years or three months, you keep putting that offer for help in front of them."

Jason's family says they want to start a foundation called "Jason's Place," that will help homeless people struggling with drug and mental health issues.

"We want to do for them what Jason wanted to do," Curtis said. "This is what Jason's dream was to do for them himself, so we want to continue on his legacy."

'Not just Jason'

A month before he died, Leon said he took his son to the emergency center at Ben Taub Hospital, where he was admitted for suicidal ideations and hallucinations, according to medical records provided by his family.

Leon said when he went to visit Jason at that hospital a few days later, he wasn't there. He said the hospital eventually told him that his son was discharged, but did not tell him where due to patient privacy laws.

When Leon received his son's medical records in October, he found out Jason was transferred to the Harris County Psychiatric Center.

Jason was at the psychiatric center for 12 days before being released to a group home. His medical records show he did not consent to his safety plan at the center being shared with his family.

13 Investigates reached out to both health agencies to ask about Jason's case and overall protocol for notifying family members of patients with mental health issues.

"Unless the patient has a legal guardian, Harris Health adheres to the patient's documented preference for notification of family or others the patient wishes to keep informed of their care," a Ben Taub spokesperson said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the psychiatric center told us "due to privacy law (HIPAA), we cannot confirm if anyone is or was a patient."

Jason's sister, Rebecca Cavitt Taylor said she understands patient privacy laws are in place, but believes even a two-minute phone call from the hospital letting the family know where Jason was could have made a difference in saving his life.

"I just want hospitals, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists to know that people that are experiencing mental health really need their help. They don't need you to send them back out on the street. There's a lot of homeless people that have a lot of mental issues," she said. "We need to come together as a community ... to see what we can do to help people because it's not just Jason that lost his life. It's others that have lost their life as well."

'Don't turn them away'

Whenever he sees a homeless person, Chris Cavitt remembers the lessons his older brother, Jason, taught him on how to love everyone and how not to be quick to judge people because you never know what they're going through on the inside.

"Even I, in the past, have been guilty of just to overlook or think that they don't deserve the same ... things I have, just because they're in a certain situation, but my brother taught me that there is no difference," Chris said. "There was no difference between me and them on that corner. How people look at you and how they judge you, it can honestly be a turn for better or for worse for people in that situation as far as helping them."

Jason's family said he always had a room at his parent's home. There were always clean clothes in the closet, too. Sometimes Jason would get so "filthy" after long stints on the street that Leon said he would just throw Jason's old clothes in the trash. He would make sure Jason bathed and put on fresh clothes.

Then, Leon would pray.

"Maybe he'll stay this time," Leon said. "Maybe he'll stay."

Jason Cavitt, top right, poses for a picture with his parents and three younger siblings.

Jason would have turned 41 on Nov. 20. His parents and siblings spent the day sharing their favorite stories about Jason in a group text message to lift their spirits.

But, Leon doesn't want to ignore his son's struggles, either. After Jason died, the note he wrote about his addiction and mental health struggles was read at his memorial and posted online as his official obituary.

"My son was saying it was too late, but it wasn't too late because," Leon said. "There still should have been hope available for him."

Despite the nights of stress and worrying where Jason was, his family said they never gave up on him. They want others to do the same.

"Don't turn them away, even if they do come to your house and they're all drugged out. Take them in, get them cleaned up. Look into getting them help," Curtis said. "Don't just push them out of the door like, 'Oh you can't stay here, you got to go,' because I guarantee you when you get that knock at your door, you're going to regret it."

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