By Glenda Winders | SDUN Book Critic
Barry Soper and Rufus Hannah didn’t get off to a very good start when they first met in 1999.
Soper recalls Hannah as the homeless bum who was digging around in the trash bin outside the apartment complex he owns, and Hannah remembers Soper as the jerk who interrupted his search for recyclables he could sell in order to buy beer.
Today Hannah manages that very apartment complex, and the two men are celebrating the publication of the book they have co-authored, “A Bum Deal: An Unlikely Journey From Hopeless to Humanitarian” (Sourcebooks). The memoir chronicles the bad breaks that led to Hannah’s descent into alcoholism and homelessness—failed marriages, a deadly hunting accident, an Army career derailed by an injury, a vocational training program abruptly ended—as well as Hannah’s involvement in the infamous “Bumfights” videos. The story has a happy ending, but the path between that first encounter and the relationship the two enjoy today was rocky, full of pain and unlikely, indeed.
“I was a well-to-do La Jollan, I sat on boards and wrote checks,” Soper, 65, said in an interview, “but I’d never really touched the homeless.”
That all changed when Soper bragged to his 90-year-old neighbor, Orlando Hawkins, that he had chased away Hannah and his “canning” partner, Donnie Brennan. To his surprise, Hawkins shook a finger at him and said, “Jesus wouldn’t like you. You need to give those guys a job.”
To appease Hawkins, he offered the pair the opportunity to build a fence at his complex, not really believing they would show up. But he was wrong.
“Alcohol was medicine for me,” said Hannah, 55. “All I wanted to do was make some money and get something to drink. Collecting cans is not easy work, let alone nasty, so I thought great, we’ll do it.”
The fence project took eight weeks.
“I got to know them as human beings with a heart rather than bums or homeless people,” Soper said. “Their work ethic was great.”
By the next time he saw them five months later, however, they had gotten involved with the “Bumfights” project. A team of wealthy San Diego teenagers led by Ryan McPherson plied them with alcohol all day and then at night urged them to do violent, dangerous and depraved acts that they recorded on video and sold. The men were required to beat each other up and harass other homeless people. Hannah, known in the videos as “Rufus the Stunt Bum,” still suffers from injuries he received from his numerous beatings and exploits, such as being pushed down a flight of concrete stairs in a grocery cart. Both men had “Bumfights” tattooed on their bodies so they could be human billboards.
The nightmare finally ended in Las Vegas, where McPherson and his friends had taken the men for more exotic adventures. They remembered that Soper had told them if they ever needed help they could call him, and they did.
Soper flew to Las Vegas, where he joined a cousin who was attending a conference there. The two men drove to the apartment where Hannah and Brennan were being held prisoner. By a stroke of good fortune they arrived while the man guarding them had gone out to buy more alcohol, so the rescue was easier than it might have been.
Once back in San Diego, Soper put the pair up in a motel, provided their meals, retained high-profile attorneys for them and helped them navigate the ensuing deluge of media that led to appearances on such TV programs as “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show” and “The Abrams Report.” It was while they were taping a segment for “60 Minutes” that Ed Bradley told Soper he should write a book. Soper dedicated his part of the project to the late journalist.
The connection between Soper and Hannah would be life-changing again when Hannah suffered a grand mal seizure during one of their meetings with lawyers. Medical evaluation led to his being offered treatment at the Veterans Administration hospital if he could stay sober for 72 hours. When he said he’d think about it, Soper snapped.
“I was fed up,” he said.
He drove Hannah to a mortuary and told him if he didn’t agree to join the program, he would buy him a casket and wash his hands of him.
Hannah joined the program and followed up with stays at Veterans Village and later at New Resolve in Escondido. Along with learning practical skills, he began reading and eventually attended Palomar College. Today, in addition to managing Soper’s property, he lectures around the country for the Coalition for the Homeless, and he is working with state and federal legislators to change laws regarding the homeless. He assisted the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training in making a training video to show police how to treat the homeless, and in 2008 he received the Civil Rights Award from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations.
Meanwhile, he and Soper sat down to tell their story. Hannah provided details, and despite never having had training in writing, Soper carefully crafted the story in Hannah’s voice. The tale, which sheds light on why people become homeless and what being on the streets is like, reads like a thriller.
The story also has a romantic postscript that didn’t make it into the book: Hannah recently married a woman with whom he had had a relationship years ago and who is the mother of two of his children. The couple live in an apartment near Soper’s complex.
“I believe everybody has potential, but it takes someone like Barry to come along and push you and be there when you need somebody,” Hannah said, tearing up. “For 20 years I was homeless. Every night when I get home I thank God that I have my own place. I have a wonderful life.”
Adds Soper: “We hope our book brings out a story of rebirth, that no matter how low a person can be—whether it’s homelessness or just down on their luck—life can get better. And one person can make a difference in another person’s life.”
“A Bum Deal” is widely available in bookstores and online. Hannah and Soper are donating 20 percent of their profits to the National Coalition for the Homeless.