Photos by the author
In the 1990s, Las Vegas began construction on storm drainage tunnels to protect the tourist destination from raging flash floods. The plan was to construct 1,600 kilometres 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 “TJ” 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 offered them little help, so they turned to the tunnel for shelter. The police ignore the homeless and last year, the Sacramento Bee reported that over the past 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 travelled 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 the grim, sunless 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 only occasionally working odd jobs. “I’m taking it day by day.”
The reality of tunnel life made even “taking it day by day” difficult. Sometimes water floods the tunnels, washing 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 mum, whom they had been living with. “His mum 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 – homeless 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'.” The organisation places tunnel-dwellers in a group home, examines their health and drug issues and provides them with counselling. If residents show progress, they are set up with their own apartment. Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies for HELP, because the organisation will only help people who are chronically homeless.
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 (€1,200) 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 programme helped saved Mike. After HELP evaluated him, they put him in a duplex with six other people. Once he finished counselling, 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 good thing is just going day to day and don't give up.”
More stuff on homelessness: