some text
Pastor Alfred Johnson shakes Jamichael Carter's hand as he greets men participating in his House of Refuge program before the evening service at Church of the First Born on St. Elmo Avenue. From near right are Gregory Williams, Carter and Logan Whiteaker.


• It has seven beds available for at-risk men who need help getting back on their feet after life challenges ranging from divorce to drug addiction to criminal conviction. The program doesn't accept most violent or sex offenders but may make exceptions depending on the circumstances.

• It guarantees employers that it will provide clients transportation to ensure they get to work on time. Court referrals are preferred but walk-ups may be considered based on an interview.

• The group meets at the Church of the First Born at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m. Sundays. For more information, call 756-0704.

Giving a gang member a job isn't all it takes to make him a productive member of society. He still has to change his thinking, said the Rev. Alfred Johnson, father of 10 and founder of the House of Refuge, a nonprofit that helps at-risk men find work.

Ninety percent of the men who graduate from the yearlong program find jobs within a month after enrolling, said Johnson. The program graduates about 24 men a year.

Recently, Chattanooga gang leaders called a cease-fire following 16 shootings and three deaths in less than a month. The men said they need job training and jobs to get out of gang life.

The city's Gang Task Force coordinator, Boyd Patterson, said the House of Refuge provides an often-omitted link in crime prevention: While most programs focus on crime prevention and suppression, this one focuses on helping people re-enter society.

"Most guys coming back from the penitentiary return to the same neighborhood with nothing to show but an increased knowledge in criminal behavior," said Patterson. "The House of Refuge can have an incredible impact on lowering our crime rate because it supports re-entry."

Edwin Derrick, 45, has been in the House of Refuge operated by the Church of the First Born since September. Drugs caused him to spend eight years in and out of jail and cost him his finances and self-respect, he said. The House of Refuge helped him get a job at Pilgrim's Pride and is helping him to get re-established. He's been drug-free for seven months.

He expressed some of the same things that gang members said were on their minds when they called their cease-fire.

"I just got tired," said Derrick. "I did a lot of things my way. That got me heartache and pain."

Participants have to understand that they can't keep doing the same thing and expect a different result, said Johnson, who is pastor of Church of the First Born. They have to be accountable for their actions. That might mean changing their friends and moving from the environment where they previously lived.

House of Refuge staff say they don't force participants to become Christians, but they do require them to attend church and submit to random drug testing. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and counseling also are provided on site. Those with more severe addictions may be sent to other agencies for counseling, said Sam Bulloch, program director and a certified drug and alcohol counselor.

The program, founded in 1995 and funded by churches and local foundations, provides shelter for 24 men, but will accept up to 30, said Johnson.

There's no cost to enroll, but once participants get a job, they're expected to pay $110 a week for housing. They also are expected to pay child support and court fines and put money into a savings account they take with them when they leave.

That amounts to about $11,000 to $12,000 for most men. Some with higher-paying jobs have left with $30,000, said Johnson.

Besides Pilgrim's Pride, Ace Hardware, Integrity Staffing and Elmwood Staffing are among the companies that have hired program participants.

Seth Knight, 37, said he lost his family because he used drugs. His wife took his three children and left him. He learned about the House of Refuge when he attended one of its Tuesday night Bible study meetings in the Hamilton County Jail. He entered the program when he got out.

"I was a wreck," he said. "I was on drugs and in trouble with the court system. These people have helped me get my life on track. Now I've got a little more respect. I've got my family back."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or call 423-757-6431.