Last June, Ryan Jones spent an oddly cool summer night sleeping under the John C. Calhoun Expressway bridge.
In a few days, he would attend Augusta Technical College training to be a police officer. The rest of his time was spent roaming the streets looking for shelter for the night.
“I got to know downtown Augusta real well,” said the Conyers, Ga., native.
Since 2009, Jones has gone from a military stint in Iraq to being homeless on the streets of Augusta to recently getting his badge as a Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy. When thinking about the last year, now that their family is back together again, Jones’ wife, Atiah, acknowledges how rough things were.
“We’ve been through a lot,” she said. “But I never doubted him. And look at him now.”
Jones, 25, was hired by the sheriff’s office in February after graduating from the 18-week Peace Officers Training Academy. He now patrols some of the same streets that he found himself sleeping on less than a year ago.
His journey from homelessness to police officer began after he returned from a one-year deployment in Iraq in June 2010. Jones got the call that his reserve unit was being sent overseas a year earlier while he was in school pursuing a criminal justice degree with the intention to go into law enforcement. During his first leave he married Atiah, mother of his 2-year-old son Bukhari.
After Jones returned to Conyers, he moved his family to Charlotte, N.C., to look for work and continue school. He moved his young family into a house with the little money he had saved from his time in Iraq, even though his mother had surgery while he was gone, which took a lot of it. That move would be the beginning of his long slide.
Once there, Atiah Jones became pregnant with their second son Elias and after three months her doctor put her on permanent bed rest. Money was scarce because Jones had not yet landed a job. Their financial situation improved only slightly when he found an entry-level security job after nine months of looking.
“Those months were tight,” he said. “If I had $6 in my pocket, I would make a meal last four or five days.”
As soon as he started the job, he noticed Atiah and Bukhari kept getting sick. They discovered that their home had mold.
With little money to pay for better housing, they moved in with different family members in Georgia. In April 2011, after four moves and the birth of their second son who spent a month in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the family moved to Augusta with the intention of Jones eventually attending Augusta Tech. They began living at the home of his brother, who was serving overseas.
Jones believed his best chance to improve his family’s situation was to get into school, where the Post-9/11 GI Bill would at least give them a book stipend off which to live. He decided to attend the Peace Officers Training Academy at Augusta Tech where he could become a deputy, something he had pursued even before his deployment.
His stay at his brother’s home, however, was short-lived. Two weeks after moving in, Jones’ sister-in-law asked him to pay $900 in rent to live there.
Unable to afford that, Jones was forced to send his family to live with some of his wife’s relatives in Florida while he stayed in Augusta.
“It was hardest on our oldest,” Atiah Jones said, looking at Bukhari. “There were many tear-filled nights. He couldn’t understand why we had to say goodbye to Ryan. He already had to do that when he went to war.”
The first four nights after leaving his brother’s house were spent sleeping on the streets of Augusta. He eventually lined up a bed at Garden City Rescue Mission. The shelter required patrons to leave by 6 each morning and line up again for a bed that afternoon.
Since he had no transportation, Jones would leave the shelter each morning at 4:30 and walk the 10 miles to make the 7 a.m. roll call at his police training class. His luck began to change after talking with a couple older veterans.
The veterans saw how depressed Jones was about his situation and suggested he seek help at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. While there, a counselor tried to help Jones get into VA housing and directed him to Al Steele, the veteran education coordinator for the Augusta Warrior Project, a nonprofit that helps veterans.
“Ryan was stressed,” Steele said. “But even when he was at his worst, he still had a level head. He knew what he wanted to do, so our job was to help him get there.”
Steele helped expedite Jones’ paperwork to get his stipend money from the Post-9/11 GI Bill. He also had a contact with the Alleluia community, which had apartments across the street from the school.
In July, after a month at the shelter, Jones moved into one of the apartments. The timing was perfect given what was going on with his wife and kids in Florida.
Atiah and the two boys had been shuttling between her grandmother’s house – where they had to stay under the radar because the community was not supposed to have anyone under 55 living there – and her cousin’s, where seven people were living in a four-bedroom house. She worked nights and kept Bukhari in school, getting two or three hours of sleep.
After her grandmother received a fine because someone at the complex discovered Atiah and the boys were living there, she called her husband and told him they would have to figure out something else. He told them to come to Augusta, where at least they had a roof in his temporary apartment.
The family has since moved into a two-bedroom home in south Augusta. They are slowly, but surely piecing together their lives.
“All that hard work, it felt like it finally paid off,” Jones said.
He is still riding with a training officer, but is expected to get his own car soon. Just the idea of having a car to patrol a beat, he said, is immensely appealing to him considering his recent past.
“Walking?” he said. “I think I’ve done enough of that.”