By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on February 13, 2015
If you want to find the City of Refuge, just search for sketchiest part of Atlanta — the Bluffs. That’s where you go if you’re up to no good.
So naturally, that’s where Bruce Deel wanted to plant his ministry and the City of Refuge. In 2004, a fenced-in, 8-acre piece industrial of property became available for $1.6 million on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard in the middle of gang territory.
When owner Malon Mimms found out about Deel’s plans, he donated the property to the City of Refuge. Calling it a “city” is appropriate. It has 5 acres of industrial buildings — 210,000 square feet — designed like a mini city. The buildings are divided up with interior streets with multiple storefronts for charitable partners.
“It’s a one-stop shop for those in crisis — primarily for women and women with children,” Deel said while giving a tour of the City of Refuge’s multiple offerings.
It has three separate shelters for women — a short-.term 30-day unit, and two shelters for those needing to stay 120 days — one for women and the other for women with children.
In all, it has 325 beds for homeless women and children. It has a daycare center for the young children. It has a special area for pregnant teenagers and teen mothers. It has an unmarked section where it takes care of victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse.
It has a “180 kitchen” (named for helping turn people’s lives around) that served 217,000 meals last year. It also started offering culinary arts training where graduates are guaranteed a job.
The City of Refuge has just added a training area for auto mechanics, thanks to a partnership with Genuine Parts Co. subsidiary NAPA Auto Parts, to teach vocational and life skills to those in need of a career.
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has provided grants for both of those work training initiatives.
There’s a medical facility on the property operated by Mercy Care. It has indoor athletic fields and spaces for other nonprofits. As Deel sees it, the more partners, the better.
“We never turn anyone away,” Deel said, adding that the City of Refuge now has 87 employees. “Our goal is to have a full sequence — from early education to elementary school. We have daycare. We have 6th to 12th grade.”
Deel had been a minister in Stone Mountain when he was asked to help close down a declining church in west Midtown. Instead of closing the ministry, Deel, his wife, Rhonda and their five daughters found themselves changing the lives of people with the greatest needs, such as prostitutes and drug addicts. When they outgrew the Midtown church, they moved their operations to Joseph E. Boone.
“Our dream is to transform a community. We have got great people in this neighborhood,” said Deal, who would like to acquire the other corners of the intersection next to the City of Refuge. As he sees it, that is ground-zero for most of the illicit activity in the area.
While visiting City of Refuge on Feb. 6, a shooting occurred two blocks away. One person was killed. There was no mention of the incident on local news that night. Asked if it ever feels too overwhelming, Deel candidly responded: “Most days I can’t look at the big picture.”
He then expressed some frustration with suburban churchgoers who come down to the city and speak about hope before returning home to their safe communities. “I’m a minister by trade. We should offer hope, but that’s not enough,” Deel said. “We have to offer resources. We have to bring light, hope and transformation.”
Chick-fil-A Inc. CEO Dan Cathy said Atlanta must quicken the pace of the transformation of the westside. Not only is the new Atlanta Falcons stadium going to open in 2017, but it is the region’s moral responsibility to bridge over the great economic and social divide on both sides of Northside Drive. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say nothing is going on,” Cathy said. “The City of Refuge is a bright spot. Here they have set aside egos and politics.”
Deel said that Cathy and the Chick-fil-A Foundation supporting the vision of the City of Refuge has strengthened its impact.
For Cathy, it all comes down to having passion and compassion for fellow human beings. “I’m more filled with conviction every time I come down here,” Cathy said. “I’ve been coming down here for several years. As I see it, we need more help down here. People are dying on the streets, literally, while we are here.”