By Karen Billing
Staff WriterRufus Hannah was on his hands and knees inside a dumpster, tearing through garbage bags looking for scraps of food to eat, when he first met Barry Soper. That day seems very far away for both men — Soper was intolerant of the homeless man ripping through the dumpster of the apartment complex he owned and Hannah was a drunk and down on his luck.
Today they sit as co-authors of the book “A Bum Deal,” detailing Hannah’s unlikely journey from “hopeless to humanitarian” and Soper’s role in helping bring about that change. Hannah now serves as the assistant manager of the Lakewood Villa Townhomes, the same place he had been dumpster diving years before.
“Our story is one of hope,” said Soper, the Rancho Santa Fe businessman turned author and advocate for the homeless.
“You can change your life, I have a wonderful life now,” said Hannah, celebrating eight years of sobriety this month. “We want to make a difference and challenge people to make a difference.”
The book chronicles Hannah’s life on the streets with his friend Donnie Brennan and his participation in the “Bumfights” videos. The videos were produced and distributed in 2002 by teenager Ryan McPhearson and a crew of his friends, featuring violent stunts and fighting shots on the streets of San Diego. On the back cover of “A Bum Deal” is a photo of Hannah, his clenched fists showing the word Bumfight tattooed across his knuckles, his hair wild and his face in an angry, toothless, scowl.
“It’s a shock to see, I didn’t know I looked like that,” Hannah said.
Today his knuckles are still scarred with black ink but the letters are now smudged after several painful and expensive laser treatments. He smiles warmly whenever he talks about Soper, about his family, about being clean and sober. The smile repaired by major oral surgery returns at the mention of the schoolchildren he speaks to on the issue of homelessness, such as a recent visit to The Children’s School in La Jolla.
Soper got the idea to write a book about Hannah’s experience from Ed Bradley. The former “60 Minutes” journalist was interviewing Hannah and Brennan for a story and told Soper it was a story he should write. Soper was inspired by his conversation with Bradley, who would pass away 11 months later in 2006, and spent four years working on the book. Through his Solana Beach literary agent Jill Marsal, he found a publisher and the book was changed to be told from Hannah’s point of view.
“It’s such a great journey,” Soper said.
Born to alcoholic parents in Georgia, Hannah was given beer in his baby bottle and was drinking regularly by age 14. His addiction destroyed nearly everything he had in his life, dissolving two marriages and limiting his ability to be a father to his five children. Whenever Hannah would get on the right track, something would “knock him back.” He attempted to join the Army but an injury forced him out of training and he self-medicated with alcohol. He became homeless and hopped a train out to Arizona for a promise of work that never materialized. He eventually found himself homeless in San Diego, meeting his friend Brennan at the VA Hospital — he was a Vietnam veteran who had earned a Purple Heart.
Brennan and Hannah were together the day they met Soper in the dumpster of his 62-unit apartment complex in San Carlos. After first yelling at Hannah and ordering him off his property, Soper was scolded by one of the complex’s neighbors who told him that he needed to “change his ways” and be more accepting.
So Soper went back to the dumpsters and offered the two homeless men a job, building fences and doing other construction work around his property.
“For eight weeks they worked for me and they were true craftsman,” Soper said. " I started to know them not as bums anymore but as human beings.”
Soper kept in occasional contact with the men as they shuffled to different locations in La Mesa, even spending nights in a baseball dugout before settling behind a Vons, which is where “Bumfights” producer McPhearson would find and exploit their alcoholism and desperation. McPhearson would buy alcohol for Hannah and Brennan in exchange for being “professional stunt bums” in his videos. The men would get drunk and be taped doing risky and dangerous stunts: riding in shopping carts down stairs, running head first into a wall of plastic milk crates, belly flopping into two feet of water, jumping off buildings, rolling down the underbelly of a freeway ramp on a skateboard and fighting.
One night Hannah beat up Donnie so badly that he had to be hospitalized with a shattered leg. On another, Donnie would get a tattoo on his forehead that read Bumfight and Hannah would get the tattoo across his knuckles. Hannah would do these things because he was drunk and because the attention made him feel important at the time.
“Booze had become so important to my body that basically all I could think about from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed was how important it was to find that next drink,” Hannah writes.
Soper was horrified when he saw the men at a gas station one day, tattooed and bruised and was determined to get the best civil litigator to represent them in a case against the “Bumfights” crew. Publicity on the case reached CNN, “The Today Show” and to “60 Minutes,” where the fortuitous meeting with Bradley would set Soper off on writing Hannah’s story. As the civil and criminal case unfolded, Soper was determined to get the men sober, especially after Hannah suffered a grand mal seizure and was told if he continued drinking as he was he wouldn’t last a year. “All during this time, Rufus and I did not get along at all,” Soper said. “Donnie had an incredible personality. I had high hopes for Donnie but I had no hopes for Rufus. I thought he was a low life and a bum because he wouldn’t talk to me.”
“I lived on the streets for so many years that I didn’t trust Barry,” Hannah explained. Eventually, Soper would practice tough love—he took Rufus to a mortuary and said: “I’ll either get you a casket or you get in the program. Those are your only choices.” Hannah entered the strict Alcohol and Drug Treatment program at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, where he would stay for a month. He was determined to change his life, especially when he thought about his kids.
“I realized my kids are more important than this bottle,” Hannah said. “It made a big impact on how I handled drinking from then on.”
From the VA, Hannah would go to the Veterans Village of San Diego, where he would stay for 11 months. He received major oral surgery to give him the smile he has today, got his own apartment and continued working for Soper at his apartment complex. He became a speaker for the National Coalition of the Homeless, got married to the mother of two of his children and, most happily, re-connected with all five children and found out he was a grandfather. His new smile is at its biggest as he recalls the first time he was called “grandpa.”
“I have a very nice life,” Hannah said.
Soper has gone on to become the chairman of Oak Grove, a nonprofit educational and residential treatment center for children and has served on the board of St. Vincent de Paul Village, which serves San Diego’s homeless population.
“I got as much out of being friends with Rufus as he did,” Soper said. “I learned more about life. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Hannah said he has not spoken to McPhearson since he got sober. The civil case was settled and the criminal case resulted in 208 hours of community service, at a homeless shelter. Although Soper would get Brennan enrolled in the rehab program, he did not stay. Both Soper and Hannah keep tabs on Brennan, who continues to live on the streets. In the book’s acknowledgments, Hannah recognizes his best friend Donnie, “May he be safe,” he wrote. The book is available at a