Bruce Deel, the City of Refuge, and the Power of Second Chances
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta lived down the street. They lived there at the time of his death, the house down on Sunset. It was a strong, bustling, active, predominantly African-American community on the Westside of Atlanta. Alonzo Herndon, one of the first African-American millionaires in the country, had a home in the neighborhood. Soul food restaurant Paschal’s had a bustling jazz club there. Aretha Franklin sang there. Dizzy Gillespie played there. Muhammad Ali was a customer sometimes. Civil rights leaders King, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and Andrew Young would eat at the Busy Bee Cafe to talk politics after church services. It was a thriving, exciting, invigorating community. “The Beloved Community,” it was once called. It’s zip code 30314.
Today, 60 percent of all murders in metro Atlanta take place in that zip code. Thirty-eight percent of residential units are vacant. Twenty-five percent of the population is without a high school diploma. The poverty rate is 43 percent, and 34 percent are two times under the poverty rate. Sunset, the road King lived on, is cracked, potholed, blown out as if in a war zone. It’s Atlanta area code 30314. And within that code is the home of City of Refuge, a nonprofit founded and run by CEO Bruce Deel. It is a one-stop shop for transitional housing, on-site medical and mental health care, child care, and vocational training for those in the community who need it most.
“It’s hard work,” Deel says. “The emotional carnage of hearing the stories of those who come here, to know these people. It’s hard.” He’s had his life threatened. He’s run after people with a baseball bat. Vehicles have been stolen. The place has been broken into. He’s been robbed. “Good things happen,” he says. “The success stories make this all worth it.”
Bruce Deel is an ordained pastor. In 1997 he took over the mission church that was in the neighborhood and then received orders to close it. In a neighborhood with the highest crime rate, homelessness, and incarceration rates in all of Georgia, he wasn’t planning on staying long.
One Sunday, however, a woman approached. “I’ve been hooking and stripping for 14 years. Can you help me?” Bruce recalls, “I said yes. And we’ve been saying yes for the last 22 years.”
With an annual budget of $8 million, a volunteer force of 2,500, an energized staff (25 percent of whom were helped by City of Refuge in their pasts), and a mission focusing on light, hope, and transformation, the 200,000 square-foot City of Refuge campus is thriving. It’s now helped over 20,000 individuals in Georgia’s toughest neighborhood escape the cycles of homelessness, joblessness, drugs, and sexual abuse.
There is a daycare center on-site. There’s Bright Futures, a nonprofit school. There’s a Mercy Care clinic. There’s a church space, where once the collection baskets would be filled with weapons, drugs, and crack pipes. There’s a vocational center where one can learn a trade, such as auto tech, nurse assisting, culinary arts, personal fitness, and more. On-site there is a safe haven for victims of human trafficking. City of Refuge has helped over 730 survivors since 2008. Bruce was recently at the White House as President Trump signed an executive order to combat human trafficking. “We want to be a one-stop shop,” he says, “for all those in crisis.”
A recently completed 10-year study of poverty, done by the Brookings Institute, highlights the importance of a place like City of Refuge. Those born into poverty need four things to get into the middle class: safe and affordable housing, a quality education, health and wellness, and a liveable wage past high school. “If all four of those needs are met,” Bruce says, “93 percent make it into the middle class. However, if you’re missing just one of those four components, 87 percent stay in poverty.” City of Refuge, in cooperation with nonprofits, churches, hospitals, police forces, and others, is committed to making sure all four are achieved under one roof.
It’s a rough neighborhood—blighted. Houses are boarded up. Roads are torn up. Businesses have come and gone and haven’t returned. Garbage is strewn across empty lots. Convenience stores are graffitied and have bars on the windows. The area is not one touted in glossy Atlanta tourism brochures. Bruce sees, however, a new threat: gentrification.
“There is a history of this place. There is a heritage. The people who live and work here shouldn’t be pushed out by more affluent residents.” And so City of Refuge is buying properties in the neighborhood to create affordable housing for those who already call the area home. A recent purchase was a hotel, famed in the days of old. It was mentioned in the old Green Books that guided African-Americans to safe places to eat and stay during the Jim Crow days. Bruce is eager to make it safe again. “There is so much potential here. It’s an opportunity in justice.”
Through City of Refuge’s vocational training program, 365 people found jobs in the workforce in 2018, 480 in 2019, and the program is growing. City of Refuge serves 350,000 meals a year. Thirty-eight beds are taken by those who have been victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. One hundred mothers are currently calling City of Refuge home, and 64 kids live on campus. “We are at 100 percent capacity 100 percent of the time,” Bruce says.
“It’s God’s purpose,” Bruce says matter-of-factly. “It surprised us.” By “us” he means his wife and five children. “We walked away from it all because this is what we were called to do.” Their call is being heard farther and farther afield. There are now 11 City of Refuge locations, in various iterations, including five in Georgia, and two in Virginia, Chicago, Baltimore, and Dallas. He’s wanting to replicate what’s being done in Atlanta in as many urban and rural areas as possible.
It’s not a long walk from City of Refuge to Martin Luther King’s old home on Sunset, and Bruce isn’t planning on stopping his walk for justice any time soon. The pastor plans on doing this work his whole life. Psalm 119:133 reads, “Establish my footsteps in your word, and do not let any iniquity have dominion over me.” A Bible verse that perhaps Bruce reads again and again as City of Refuge holds a dominion of social justice over area code 30314.