City of Refuge founder offers hope to homeless in ‘Trust First’

In the opening scene of his memoir “Trust First,” Bruce Deel is trying to serve food to a group of street people when he steps between a homeless woman aiming a gun at a homeless man.

"My worries about what might go wrong that evening had been things like, What if we run out of cheese? What if we can't plate food fast enough?" he writes. "I hadn't once thought, What if someone pulls out a .45 caliber pistol?"

Deel gently diffuses the situation, but then wonders whether he has put himself in the wrong place.

In later scenes he will go up against car thieves with a baseball bat and chase a burglar two miles to get back a stolen computer and camera.

Such is the life of a man his congregants call the Ghetto Reverend.

For 22 years Deel has operated an in-town ministry helping the homeless kick drugs, secure jobs, restore dignity and enjoy lives of value. The founder of City of Refuge, he has created one of Atlanta’s most successful programs for people in crisis, which has been replicated in cities around the country.

Now he tells his story in a memoir.

“The reason I wrote the book is that there is good in everybody. Just sometimes you gotta dig farther down,” said Deel. “Trust First,” published by Penguin Random House, is available in bookstores now.

At 56, Deel can bench-press 300 pounds. He looks like he should be playing football rather than saving souls. But a little extra muscle is a good thing. There are many battles ahead and he’ll need all the strength he can muster.

Soon he will face the most powerful force in the city of Atlanta: the real estate market. In 2004 he placed his homeless compound in Hunter Hills, part of what’s called The Bluff, west of downtown. It is perhaps the most blighted area of Atlanta, where 60 percent of the city’s murders take place and where more than a third of the homes are vacant, according to his own statistics.

But change is coming to the drug-riddled neighborhoods of Vine City, English Avenue and The Bluff, and it’s trickling over into Deel’s neck of the woods.

“There are homes in our neighborhood that we could have literally bought 12 months ago for $40,000 that are selling for $175,000 today,” said Deel.

Deel spoke from an upholstered swivel chair in the command center of City of Refuge, a 210,000-square-foot warehouse complex on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard that he and his colleagues have turned into a mini-city of opportunity, with 220 temporary residents, schools, vocational training and medical facilities. The battle to defend this turf against speculators has already begun.

This fall Deel and his board will open The 1300, a 47-unit apartment complex across the street from City of Refuge. About 35 of those units will be charge no more than 60 percent of market value and no more than 30 percent of renters’ income.

Deel has also begun buying up land parcels around City of Refuge to insulate his complex from the onrushing gentrification.

“If we have to have a few uncomfortable conversations with investors or speculators, we will to try and protect the citizens of this community,” said Deel.

But that’s the second chapter of the Deel saga. In the first chapter of his book, subtitled “A True Story About the Power of Giving People Second Chances,” his opponents are drugs, poverty, racism, burglars and gang-bangers.

Deel has placed his trust with a crew of colorful characters in his 20-plus years working with the dispossessed. Portraits of those individuals are among the book’s highlights.

They include:

• Jake, “Westside’s best, possibly only, homeless semi-pro golfer,” who gave Deel his nickname, the Ghetto Rev.

• Rufus, who sometimes wore dresses and eye-makeup, and didn’t appreciate people telling him how to live: “Dey all up in my Kool-Aid and dey don’t even know the flavor.”

• Ryan, a one-time gang member who disappeared with the ring of keys to every door in City of Refuge on his way to rejoin his old criminal companions.

All proved worthy of second (and third and more) chances, and two out of three became success stories of City of Refuge. (Jake died without shaking his substance abuse problems.)

Deel grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the son of a Church of God preacher who frequently moved from congregation to congregation. He attended 12 schools by the time he was in high school.

A red-haired, freckle-faced skinny boy who seemed to attract bullies, Bruce met his problems head-on: “My approach was to hit first, hit hard and hit last,” he writes.

After he joined the ministry and moved to Atlanta, that courage was tested. He was given an urban post called The Mission Church in a rundown neighborhood off 14th Street. It once boasted a thriving congregation, but most of the members had relocated to the suburbs, and he quickly saw that drug-users and prostitutes would be among his congregants. He welcomed them.

When the Church of God suggested he close The Mission Church down, Deel instead moved his wife and daughters into the dilapidated structure and began a full-time crusade to help those in need, hosting homeless women in the upper floors and homeless men in the basement.

As the church filled up, Deel began looking for more room, and he found the warehouse complex in Hunter Hills. In 2004 City of Refuge opened on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. In addition to offering a 180-day program for homeless women and women with children, City of Refuge also shelters victims of sex trafficking at an undisclosed location.

Deel has exported his concept to 10 other cities and frequently travels to speak about the recipe that has made City of Refuge a success. One of those speeches, in Aspen, Colorado, was organized by motivational guru Simon Sinek. After hearing Deel’s presentation, Sinek and Random House editor Adrian Zackheim suggested Deel turn his story into a book.

His co-writer, Sara Grace, helped focus the story. “She convinced me to drop a few things on the floor that I didn’t really want to, but she does this for a living so I took her counsel on it.”

City of Refuge, supported mostly by private donations, keeps growing. It offers training in automotive repair and the culinary arts, and uses its commercial kitchen to serve 350,000 meals a year. It has transformed the lives of those it has helped, and now aims to transform the neighborhood.

Deel knows that some people will always find themselves down and out. Almost 9,000 women applied for housing at City of Refuge last year. “We were able to accommodate 407 of those requests.”

He won’t solve the homeless problem and no city will, he said. “People are going to be born into poverty, people are going to be born into crisis environments.” He simply feels called to serve.

“It’s not a matter of whether or not you end homelessness. It’s a matter of creating the best pathways forward.”