Blue-eyed, tattooed Justin Halas started his journey toward recovery right before Manatee County’s opioid epidemic furiously ramped up, responsible for taking with it hundreds of lives.
“But I’m telling you for a thousand percent fact I would be dead if I was still using because of what was going around,” the 34-year-old said. “I was looking for that kind of stuff.”
It began as polishing off his parents’ leftover alcohol at age 12, then drinking and smoking weed every day at 14. Then he got a hold of cocaine, acid and ecstasy. When Halas wasn’t homeless, he was in “trap motels” out of which drugs were sold. Accidents led him to prescription painkillers, and to heroin.
Over the past few years heroin has slowly become more and more responsible for overdose deaths in Manatee, with cocaine and fentanyl deaths also on the rise. The latest report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Medical Examiners Commission showed that last year, the drugs most responsible for overdose deaths in Manatee were cocaine and carfentanil, a fentanyl analog used as a large animal tranquilizer that can be 5,000 times stronger than heroin.
“When I was on my last run on the street ... when I came out this time, I felt something different inside,” he said. “But at the same time there was no difference in my outside circumstance.”
He said that could have been “a guaranteed relapse.” He knows at least 40 friends that have died of drug overdoses.
“I always tell people that when I got the gift of desperation and finally had the willingness to seek out God, seek out help and take suggestions from people, that was the day my whole life changed,” he said.
Today, he paints a different picture. Still blue-eyed, still tattooed, but he has been sober for the past four years and now is accompanied by a constant beam of positivity that embodies his outreach program. For the past two years he has run the High on Jesus ministry, which is a blend of the 12-step program and the Bible.
“I would always try to fill that hole inside of me with money, or cars, or clothes, or women, or whatever it was working out,” he said. “And those all feel good temporarily, but still then it leaves you wanting more over and over again. So I found in doing this stuff what I’ve been looking for my entire life and you can get high on Jesus.”
The program once ran out of Harvest United Methodist Church, but due to financial difficulty he wasn’t able to continue his involvement with the program, on top of visiting the jail recovery pods and First Step’s Choices recovery program for men. After a six-month hiatus, his Friday night sessions are back — this time, out of a yoga studio.
“I don’t have a hell and brimstone message, you know what I mean? I go in there and I tell people, ‘You can change your life through this,’ ” he said.
Halas also works part-time at Bradenton’s Faith United Methodist Church as an outreach director.
“With all his tattoos and this and that, he’s an interesting guy,” said Pastor Gary Eldred. “Your first impression is, ‘Who is this guy?’ I’m pleased that the church has embraced him.”
The church hosts six Alcoholics Anonymous groups, but Eldred said the church wanted to help alleviate the opioid epidemic in Manatee County. Through his network of pastors, he found Halas.
“He just has a powerful package to present,” he said.
The 34-year-old presents three commitments of his program: to Christ, to the 12-step program and to positivity.
“I’m just not about being sober. That’s just one level. Then I want to take you to the next level,” Halas said. “I want people to not only be sober, but to have true peace, true joy and to live a happy, successful life.”
Eldred said that although most of his congregation aren’t part of the “addiction community” themselves, the opioid epidemic has had a direct impact to their families or close friends.
“It really does come home to them,” he said.
Halas is in the midst of cultivating a new aspect of his services, which he calls Hand Up to Victory. When he got out of jail for the last time, he said that although his mindset had changed, the life waiting for him outside had not. There can be waiting lists to get into halfway houses, and resources to pay for these services aren’t readily available.
He wants to be the “hub” for addicts who need help getting into a halfway house, or need food or clothes. It doesn’t come cheap, which is why he’s asking for donations.
Brooks Jackson, who has over the past year-and-a-half attended Halas’ Friday evening sessions, now at Beyond the Mat Yoga in Bradenton, said he owes a lot to him and High on Jesus.
“He helped me figure out who I was underneath all the things I hid behind,” he said, first hearing Halas speak when he was involved with First Step’s Choices recovery program.
With his addiction to opioids like pills and heroin, Jackson never thought he would own a house, have a family or get a good job. He’s two-and-a-half years clean. He met his wife Christine because of the program, and they recently married.
He said that Halas’ words on faith were a “breath of fresh air,” and the sessions were something to look forward to, especially on a Friday night.
Anywhere from 20 to 30 people attend the weekly meetings, Halas said. They’re for recovering alcoholics, addicts or anyone looking for positive encouragement.
“I don’t really claim a denomination,” he said. “I’m just about Jesus.”
If you go
What: High on Jesus ministry
When: 7-8:30 p.m. Fridays
Where: Beyond the Mat Yoga, 5315 47th St. E., Bradenton
How to donate: Call 1-833-4HANDUP