In the 1990s, the Hydro Conduit Corporation began building storm-drainage tunnels in Las Vegas to protect the tourist destination from raging flash floods. Today, the tunnels house the city's homeless population.
Photos by the author
In the 1990s, Las Vegas began building storm-drainage tunnels to protect the tourist destination from raging flash floods. The plan was to construct 1,000 miles of tunnels within 20 or 25 years. Today, the tunnels house the city's homeless population.
The scorpion-filled tunnels gained notoriety in 2002, when Timmy "T. J." Weber used them to evade the police after he murdered his girlfriend, but the homeless people are neither murderers nor radioactive mole people—they're normal American citizens who have lost their way. Las Vegas offers them little help, so they turn to the tunnels for shelter. The police ignore the homeless, and last year, the Sacramento Bee reported that over the previous five years, Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital had dumped homeless patients across state lines, sending more than 1,500 homeless people to glamorous locales like Los Angeles's Skid Row.
Wanting to learn more about the problem, at the end of 2012 I traveled beneath the bright lights of Vegas to meet the tunnel people with Matthew O'Brien, from the Shine a Light Foundation, a community program that works with HELP of Southern Nevada to assist the homeless.
In the middle of the night, O'Brien led me into a grim, murky void filled with scorpions, health risks, and addiction. The cramped tunnels were claustrophobic and covered with child-like graffiti. My flashlight's beam failed to light the end of the long labyrinth. At the tunnel's entrance beneath a tarp, we met John, a middle-aged man from Orlando.
John said, "One day, I went home and told my wife and kids, 'It's all yours. See ya! I'm taking this bag, and I'm going to Vegas.'" He moved to Las Vegas because it was a destination city and quickly learned that the Vegas lifestyle is anything but a permanent vacation. During his first year, he worked on the docks at Mandalay Bay, but in 2012 he was working only occasionally, performing odd jobs. "I'm taking it day by day."
The reality of tunnel life has made even "taking it day by day" difficult. Sometimes, water floods the tunnels and washes John and other dwellers' belongings away. John called this "flushing the toilet" and told me that water routinely came over his head. "When you think it's going to rain, you have your stuff at the end of that tunnel, ready to move."
Across town, in another tunnel, a couple named Cindy and Rick lived in a damp space that reeked of sewage. When I visited them in 2012, both Cindy and Rick were struggling with addiction and had been living in the tunnel for over a year.
They treated their tunnel like a home. "[I'm] just cleaning up the place," Cindy said. "These two chairs are actually from the last flood, and they survived in the rushing water, holding on by their wheels." Rick built a kitchen area equipped with a camping stove, and Cindy decorated the place with Insane Clown Posse murals. "When Rick was in jail I wrote, 'I Miss You,'" she said.
They moved to the tunnel after the death of Rick's mom, whom they had been living with. "His mom died of cancer, and she [lived] in a seniors complex," Cindy said. "It took both of us to take care of her in the end. We were both homeless, and it was a seniors complex, so we had to move out right then and there."
Last fall, Cindy and Rick went on Dr. Phil, where Cindy's estranged daughters confronted her about her living situation. She told them that she took the blame for the death of her brother and father and then started to self-medicate. Professional locator Troy Dunn said to Cindy, "I sat with you in that tunnel, and was so amazed that these strangers—these crackheads—would wander into this tunnel and flop down on the bed and eat your food, and you seemed to have so little, and yet you were willing to help these strangers. And you said to me, 'How can I not help someone in need?'" At the end of the episode, Dr. Phil offered to send Cindy and Rick to rehab, and they agreed to go.
But few tunnel people are given the opportunity to receive a free trip to rehab from a television host. Instead, they're stuck beneath the bright lights, living juxtapositions of the bachelorette parties on the Strip—people tourists don't want to see.
O'Brien helps these people connect with HELP. "[HELP] deals with what they call 'the worst of the worst,'" he said. The organization places tunnel dwellers in single-occupancy housing, or in shelters, and examines their health and drug issues while also providing them with counseling.
But HELP has changed many tunnel dwellers' lives. When I met Mike, he worked in a gun store. If I didn't know he had lived in the tunnels, I never would have thought he had lived like Rick and Cindy. After working in the Marines and as a police officer in Washington, he got divorced and lost his job. "I was told I was going to get kicked out of my apartment, so I grabbed what I could, put it in the car, and drove to Vegas," he said. "It seemed like a plan with a lot of opportunity."
Mike lived in his car, which broke down in the MGM parking lot mere weeks upon his arrival. He tried sports betting, but the casinos always won. After MGM kicked him off the property, he once again grabbed what he could, and spent the next six years living on the streets—until he discovered the tunnels. "I was camping near an area by the railroad tracks by the opening of the tunnels here by the Rio," he said. "I was there for a couple of days, and I'd see people walking out of the tunnels dressed up all nice."
He started living in the tunnels and hustling. He spent all his money on meth. One time, he found a $1,600 winning sports ticket on the casino floor, cashed it out, and then came back to the tunnels and got high. He never considered using the money to find a decent place to live.
Getting into HELP's program helped save Mike. After HELP evaluated him, they put him in a home. Once he finished counseling, he started looking for work. Numerous employers rejected him—probably because of his eight-year employment gap—so for extra money, he sold plasma. One day, Mike checked the job listings and saw that the gun store was hiring. "When he applied he was totally honest and was hired on the spot. A lot of employers would not be open to that," his fiancé told me.
Although Mike became a model employee, most of his pals were still dealing with addiction, arrests, and chronic homelessness. Mike credited his strength for his survival in Las Vegas's tunnels and streets. "[You need] perseverance when living on the streets," Mike said before we parted. "The important thing is just going day to day and not giving up."
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