Every day more than 300,000 cars travel on the downtown connector and the massive I-20 interchange, where three of the country's busiest interstates converge in the shadow of the state Capitol. The knot of concrete bridges and underpasses designed to streamline high-speed car travel is an engineering marvel — an architectural feat that, ironically, you can't really appreciate until you step out of your car.
But in addition to moving cars along, the ramps and bridges also create gaps, nooks, and crannies that have become shelter for homeless men and women. They flock to the state-owned area and ignore the "no trespassing" signs because it's near downtown, where many of the city's homeless service providers are located.
“Geechie” lays in the nook he calls home, underneath a bridge overlooking a curved on-ramp.
Structures like this offer enough visibility to make the people staying in the area feel safe and enough camouflage to keep them out of view from police and road crews.
“Geechie,” a Charleston, S.C. native, has been homeless for about 12 years. He sleeps “on top of 15 blankets and under 15 blankets” in a little nook next to a bridge where he’s unlikely to be noticed.
In the next five years, Geechie said he’d like to have his teeth fixed, get his own apartment, and own a trucking company.
"Geechie" grips his backpack where he keeps his ID and other important documents.
"It's all I have," he said.
Kent Beasley, a “fifty something” Atlanta native, has lived on the city’s streets for more than 10 years. For the last few months, the former boxer has camped on a ridge overlooking I-75/85 near downtown.
"We are homeless," Kent said. "We ain't doing nothing wrong to nobody. If somebody runs out of gas or gets a flat we go and try to help them, to try to earn an extra dollar for food or for some soap. We are not out here to bother anyone."
"See all those blankets?" Kent said. "I have to sleep like a fireman. You know how a fireman sleeps? They sleep with everything on but their shoes... that's how I sleep."
Kent stores his belongings in a nearby tree to thwart would-be thieves.
"I had $8 [in] pennies and they all got stolen," he said. "I would have spent them on something to eat, or soap, or maybe some cat food, depending on what I would have needed that day."
Kent has a deep faith in Jesus Christ. He wrote "Jesus is Real," on the enormous wall that props the road over where he sleeps.
"I wake up and I pray," he said. "I pray everyday. I pray and I ask the Lord to send me a blessing."
Kent sleeps alongside his friend Brian, a 68-year-old from Michigan, and his cats Bonnie and Clyde. (Clyde was struck and killed by a car on the nearby on-ramp last week.)
Ronnie Catlin and his wife Melinda have been homeless for about a year and a half. Ronnie recently lost his tent in a "clean up." He said the sight of tire tracks often means the area has been visited by authorities or work crews, who confiscate unattended or unclaimed items.
"It's a funny feeling," he said. "First of all you are looking for your tent. If that's not there you know that it is all gone. You know that's all you had and that was all you got, and now you got nothing."
Ronnie shows the scar stretching from his torso to his groin. He said he was stabbed three times near the Georgia Dome and lost his spleen as a result, rendering him unable to work. Now, he awaits a fourth surgery to help repair the damage.
"They want us out of here," Ronnie said. "But there is nowhere to go."
Melinda Catlin holds her most prized possession: a photo album of her family.
Many men and women said the homeless population under Atlanta's downtown interstates ebbs and flows. At its peak earlier this summer, dozens of tents were arranged along Pryor Street, the knolls between the ramps, and the gravel areas under the bridges.
That lasted until city and state officials called in bulldozers to scoop up and dispose of unclaimed belongings.
Scenes of these makeshift cities are still visible on Google Street View.
Chicago native Christine, 46, has been living under Atlanta's downtown connector for two weeks.
"I have HIV ... I need housing bad ... It is just terrible," she said about her life.
She left Chicago for Atlanta after her son's girlfriend poured gasoline on her and her grandson, she said. She was trying to raise money to return to Chicago, but said Atlanta's anti-panhandling ordinance has made it more difficult.
"It is crazy to me," she said about the ordinance. "It's crazy not to be able to try to survive. I am not hurting anybody. I am not robbing anybody."
Some of the residents pushed out from underneath Atlanta bridges earlier this summer relocated to a nearby wooded area. A few have named it "Tent City."
Roots Sire, also known as "Stickman," lives with his wife Lele and dog Pearl in a tent surrounded by plastic and tarps.
"It's like a tennis match or something. Before you know it, we got to go under the bridge again because you got nowhere to go," Roots said. "They can lock me up a thousand times [and] they can fence this off, [but] we gonna find a way to get back up in here because this is where we feel safest."
"We are called the House of Peace," Roots said about his family's shelter. "[The] reason: No matter what emotion goes on around here, don't bring it to my house. If you come to visit, leave all the bullshit outside my gate. Come and be at peace. But when you leave, you can pick up your bullshit with you and keep on going."
"If you are hungry, we get canned goods," Roots said. "We get snacky snacks, we get chips, we get a lot of stuff — water, juices, sometimes sodas, sometimes we even get meats. When anybody needs something they come to the House of Peace, 'cause nine times out of 10 we got something."
Roots collected four pounds of aluminum cans on a recent morning.
"After working for four to five hours, I will make four or five dollars." He said. "But hey, I am hungry as hell right now. For five dollars I can go to either Waffle House or McDonald's. That will be enough for me and my wife."
Root's wife Lele shows her most prized possession, a $20 wedding ring her husband bought in Underground Atlanta.
“I didn’t think it would last this long, or look this good,” she said. “I keep it close to my heart.”
Trash piles up along a hillside near one of the homeless camps.
He hopes to go to Georgia State University but says he still needs to pay $2,000 — money he says he doesn't have — to his old school if he wants to get his transcript so he can enroll. "I have two sleeping bags, so I keep warm," he said. "But you never know if someone comes up here, if they have a problem with you. It's not secure up here. Someone can just come and take my stuff. I see stuff all the time. The other day I saw a guy beat on a girl. An older guy hit this younger girl, like 18. I was kinda mad he hit her like a man. And I was like 'wow.' It opened my eyes a little bit."
“Skipper,” a former airport cargo worker, said his criminal record has made finding a job difficult.
"Skipper" stands by his tent.
The area's unintended role as a place of refuge underscores a harsh truth — that metro Atlanta's social services system isn't able to help everyone.