Homeless in Atlanta: Hiding in plain sight

Atlanta’s homeless seek refuge among the rushing cars, stray cats, and tents along the Downtown Connector

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. Built in the 1960s, the network of concrete ramps helped speed up the development of the suburbs and hastened the downturn of the city.

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. The structure provides the right balance of visibility to keep them safe, and camouflage from police and road crews.

The area’s unintended role as a place of refuge underscores the fact that metro Atlanta’s social services system isn’t able to help everyone. And that the city’s recent pledge to curb chronic homelessness - which really is the responsibility of the county and state - will be an uphill battle.

For years, the state and city and the homeless have engaged in a back-and-forth routine of people setting up camp, followed by authorities telling them to pick up their possessions and move. The homeless then either find another area under one of the many bridges or move out of sight into wooded areas.

“It’s like a tennis match,” says one homeless man. “Soon people will be back under there.”

The population ebbs and flows; at its peak earlier this summer dozens of tents were arranged along Pryor Street and the knolls between ramps, until city and state officials called in bulldozers to scoop up unclaimed belongings. Scenes of these makeshift cities are visible on Google Street View.

Most of the men and women say they want to get off the streets and find help but they’ve hit dead ends in local support systems. Others say they’re shut out of the labor market because of past felony arrests. Some like living along the interstate.

“I want to see something happen,” says one man in his mid-40s who asked not to be photographed and to be referred to as “Disheartened.” “I want to see something change. I want to see something from the city and state that shows us we’re different and that they’ll help somebody, not just talk about it.”

NEXT: Hiding in plain sight photo essay

!!!Hiding in plain sight: A story in photos

CL staffers Thomas Wheatley and Joeff Davis explore what it’s like to live, and what it takes to survive, under Downtown Atlanta’s interstates.