He took his first drink at 11 and experienced conflict trauma through childhood. Then, he ended up homeless in Utah.

Mental health advocate Brian Higgins is bringing his lived experience to a new state council that will shape Utah’s homeless services system.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Higgins, a formerly homeless man who recovered from addiction and started a mental health nonprofit, is a new member of the Utah Homelessness Council. Higgins was photographed on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.

The Salt Lake City home where Brian Higgins slept at night had been gutted after a flood, with walls stripped down to wood framing and electric wiring.

The owners had permitted Higgins, who’d been homeless for months, to stay during the winter if he kept mainly to the basement. So he duct-taped a shower curtain over the missing windows to beat back the cold and bunked down on a mattress with a few blankets.

In the mornings, he’d brew coffee in a blue plastic kettle — the same one he also used to warm his soups and stews later in the day.

When he first became homeless, he would stick to certain routines, often heading to the library to fill out job applications and check his email. As the weeks and months passed, though, he’d given up trying to engineer a sense of normalcy. He expected his drinking and substance use would kill him soon anyway.

“I thought that there was no answer for me,” the 44-year-old said.

Then one day, unexpectedly, a simple encounter with some kids in a park shattered his resignation — and altered the course of his life. In the eight years since that turning point, he’s exited homelessness, founded a nonprofit and become a prominent mental health advocate.

Now, he’s stepping into a critical position in the state’s new homelessness council, holding the single seat reserved for someone who’s actually lived through the difficulties the panel is trying to confront.

“To have that voice at the system level ... we’ve not had that,” said Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home nonprofit, which runs two of Salt Lake County’s resource centers. “For someone to be able to look at the bigger picture and how the system is working and have that voice at the table, I’m thrilled.”

Wayne Niederhauser, Utah’s homeless services coordinator, says Higgins’ insights will help the council — which formed earlier this year as part of the state’s effort to streamline funding and services — understand the links between trauma and loss of housing.

Researchers have found abuse, neglect or family dysfunction in a person’s youth is connected to housing instability later in life, with 77% of homeless men and 85% of homeless women in one study reporting some form of childhood trauma.

Niederhauser said before he became state coordinator, he thought about homelessness in terms of the need for a job or to kick an addiction.

“I’m a perfect example of misunderstanding and being uninformed,” he said. “Having been involved now with homeless services, having done outreach, having gotten to know people in that situation, it’s not what I expected. It’s different. I did not understand. And having [Higgins] there will help us get understanding.”

Higgins says no one could’ve pushed him to seek healing before he was ready and that state officials and service providers can’t force anyone else to that point, either.

“But once somebody asks,” he said, “we need to be there with the answers.”

‘Everything started falling apart’

Higgins came to the U.S. when he was 26, traveling on a special visa from his native Northern Ireland.

He’d grown up surrounded by violence and sectarian conflict, but it wasn’t until he left his home country that the post-traumatic stress from these experiences began to afflict him.

“It was only when I was removed from the situation,” he said, “that everything started falling apart for me.”

A car’s backfire or simple noises around the house could set off a wave of panic. At one point, he stuck foam stoppers to the back of his cupboard doors because the sound of them slamming would remind him of gunshots.

His mental state worsened as he went in and out of psychiatric wards and searched for relief in treatment centers. He tried traditional talk therapy, meditation and yoga. He even tried primal scream therapy, but nothing seemed to work.

Alcohol dulled the fear.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Higgins, right, interviews Shawn McMillen, Executive Director of First Step House, at the Central City Apartments in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.

Higgins recently told the state’s homelessness council that he had his first drink at age 11 and started trying to quit at 19. But his attempts at sobriety were usually short-lived and came in response to a crisis.

“I lost the car, lost the girlfriend, lost the job, whatever,” he said. “And then once I got those things back, it was just like a clock, it was just a stopwatch to start me boozing and using again.”

Despite that, he was able to work in architectural design for a while. He married, moved to Utah and became a father.

Underneath, though, his home life was falling apart. During the recession, Higgins left his job and says he honestly wasn’t even upset. It meant he could stay home all day and drink.

Then one day, almost exactly a decade ago, he arrived back at his house to discover the locks had changed.

He stayed in a hotel for a little bit, then crashed on a friend’s couch and in some hostels. When his money ran out, there was nowhere else for him to go but the shelter or the street. He was too embarrassed to ask his friends for help.

‘Guns are bananas’

The plan, Higgins said, was to drink and use substances until he died.

Being in shelters exacerbated his post-traumatic stress disorder. Between his distrust of strangers and his dread of being recognized on the street by a friend, he isolated himself when he could. He resented most people he passed in public, noticing they refused to make eye contact and treated him as invisible.

Once he gained access to the derelict home in Sugar House, he withdrew into it. He was convinced there was no hope for him.

Higgins recalls seething with “hate and bile” one day in the park, as he watched the people in the park around him. No one would be willing to help, he thought, or even acknowledge his existence.

A group was picnicking nearby, and a couple of kids were running around playing with a banana. They walked up to him, pointed the banana at him and pretended to fire it like a gun.

One of Higgins’ recurring, disturbing flashbacks from the trauma in Northern Ireland was of men yanking him out of a car and pressing a gun to his head. The banana-gun recalled that violent image, he said — but also transformed it.

“The idea popped into my head, that if those two kids are truly believing that that banana is a gun, there’s no reason why I can’t believe the opposite is true,” he said. “That guns are bananas.”

That moment represented the beginning of his journey toward recovery, inspiring him to admit he needed help and to reconnect with resources and services. He was able to regain housing, get a job and started volunteering with The Road Home.

The epiphany in the park also helped shape the way he thinks about recovery from trauma.

Years later, he founded a nonprofit called Mental Healthy F.i.T., an organization that uses storytelling and creativity to help destigmatize mental health issues. He’s worked with veterans, refugees, youth and marginalized communities, he said.

Through his program, he said, people often create works of art featuring “fictional avatars” that go through trauma but find their way to happiness.

At the conclusion of the program, participants perform or show their work in front of an audience.

“Now, there’s like 100 people in the audience, 100 strangers, giving them a round of applause,” he said. “That could be the first time in their life that anyone’s paid any attention to them.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Wayne Niederhauser the Utah state homeless services coordinator talks to the media after a news conference for the opening of the Magnolia housing complex for people who have experienced homelessness, on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

But a turning point isn’t enough for someone who’s trying to leave behind substance abuse or pursue healing from trauma, Higgins says. Aftercare is an equally essential part of the system, Higgins said he’s learned since his 18 months of homelessness.

During an introduction to the state council that will guide Utah’s homeless services system, Higgins said he’d relapsed into drinking many times over the last decade, and reaching sobriety took several years longer than finding stable housing.

His sobriety feels strong now, but he knows it’s contingent on daily rituals of looking after himself, helping others and making progress.

He now leads a simple life of gratitude, he said, even for elements of his past.

Recently, while rummaging around his Salt Lake City home, Higgins stumbled across the blue plastic kettle he once used to heat coffee and soup in the abandoned house. When he found it, he smiled.

Correction at 9:53 a.m. Friday: This story previously misstated the age at which Higgins had his first drink.