By Hannah E. Jones
On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the City of Refuge (COR) embarked on a $25 million capital campaign to further help individuals and families in crisis. The investments raised from “Breaking Barriers. Building Momentum” will allow the nonprofit to offer additional affordable housing, provide mental and physical health services and increase pathways to financial success.
COR was established in 1997 and offers job training, women’s housing and youth programs. The organization primarily serves Atlanta’s Westside community, where over one-third of the population lives in poverty.
Founder and CEO Bruce Deel told SaportaReport that the need for COR’s services has grown each year, and community investments are essential to ensuring that Atlantans in crisis receive the assistance they desperately need. The nonprofit has already received commitments from the Atlanta BeltLine, Chick-fil-A, Chestnut Family Foundation, NAPA Auto Parts, Peach State Health Plan and others.
According to Deel, the nonprofit’s residential program, which offers 200 beds for women and children, is at “max capacity all the time.”
“Our residential services certainly are utilized at a really high rate,” he added.
Needless to say, housing is a major component of the new capital campaign.
The largest chunk of the funds — $11 million — will go to a new Transformation Center, which will be built on an empty lot just a two-minute walk from COR’s campus. The 36,000-square-foot, three-story building will include a social entrepreneurship hub, a 24/7 clinic for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence and 23 units of affordable housing.
Deel describes the units as “true affordable housing,” with folks paying no more than 60 percent market rate or 30 percent of their monthly income. This is key in a neighborhood where one-third of households pay over 50 percent of their income in rent, according to COR.
Beyond the resources necessary for survival — like housing and medical care — the new Center’s offerings work to ensure participants have a prosperous future.
The Center’s social entrepreneurship hub will provide a space for residents to present business plans. From there, they will be connected with local successful entrepreneurs and business people who will help them refine their plans. Once approved, COR will offer an in-house credit union to serve as microfinancing for start-up costs.
“Not only will [COR] help them develop and refine a business startup plan, then we’ll be able to financially support that and have successful entrepreneurs walk with them through the launch phase,” Deel said.
The team hopes to break ground on the project in mid-2023, with an anticipated opening in the summer of 2024.
In addition to the affordable units at the Transformation Center, COR also plans to build around 14 townhomes on Andrews Street, just down the street from its campus. The new housing will be available for women leaving difficult situations, including recently incarcerated folks or survivors of domestic violence. The idea here is to create easier pathways to homeownership, so the townhomes will include a plan for residents to purchase at zero percent interest within 10 to 15 years.
“One of the big challenges in our community right now is the rise in real estate costs,” Deel said. “With the revitalization that’s taken place on the Westside, which is very positive, but one of the challenges is that some individuals are priced out.”
He continued: “We believe [homeownership] starts the development of generational wealth opportunities. Our goal is to provide those services for folks that need it right now with the idea that the next generation will not need the City of Refuge’s services.”
Some of these investments will reach outside of Atlanta. COR is already rather widespread, with five locations in Georgia, three in Virginia and one in Chicago, Baltimore and New Orleans. The nonprofit’s next home will be Nashville, with talks in other cities around the country. The team is also working on City of Refuge South, a 90-acre plot in Thomaston, Ga., that will offer therapeutic options like equine therapy, a ropes course and a climbing wall.
Finally, the team is allocating over $2 million to Atlanta campus improvements to ensure visitors feel comfortable and welcome. The plans include a Welcome Center, an amphitheater and a garden. COR will also upgrade the 40 units in its Eden Village, which was built 14 years ago.
“We feel like [the improvements will] create safe, warm and welcoming environments and it establishes a greater level of dignity for the individuals who are receiving the services,” Deel said. “We want them to feel like they’re a part of the team and not a client, so having these spaces helps create that atmosphere.”
With a 25-year history of serving residents in underinvested parts of the city, Deel is appreciative of the community support and looks forward to the nonprofit’s future impact.
“The generosity of the Atlanta community is the reason that City of Refuge has been sustainable over the past 25 years,” Deel said. “Our campus is absolutely at max capacity with everything we do. Even though we’re at max capacity, the demand for our services seems to be increasing on a regular basis. So it seems all of the pieces have come together to expand to a much larger footprint than we currently have.”