— 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.
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
gently diffuses the situation, but then wonders whether
he has put himself in the wrong place.
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.
the life of a man his congregants call the Ghetto
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.
tells his story in a memoir.
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.
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
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% of the city’s
murders take place and where more than a third of the
homes are vacant, according to his own statistics.
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.
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.
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
Deel and his board will open The 1300,
also begun buying up land parcels around City of Refuge
to insulate his complex from the onrushing
have to have a few uncomfortable conversations with
investors or speculators, we will to try and protect the
citizens of this community,” said Deel.
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.
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
“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
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.
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
up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the son of a
Church of God preacher who frequently moved from
congregation to congregation
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
not a matter of whether or not you end homelessness.
It’s a matter of creating the best pathways