Las Vegas Keeps the Neon Lights On and the Homeless Underground
Interesting Sh!t staff recently found themselves on location in a sprawl of dreary catacombs. They were enveloped by a darkness so black not even the fact they were mere feet below buildings whose light switches don’t have an off position could help bring even a pittance of illumination-or hope-to the surroundings.
Welcome to the 300 or so miles of flood tunnels inhabited by approximately 1,000 homeless people fighting to survive under America’s original city of sin, Las Vegas.
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Vegas is a tale of two cities. There’s fun Vegas: the one that last year welcomed over 42 million visitors to its oasis-in-the-desert location, enticing them with its promise of booze fuelled never-ending good times and the possibility of winning big bucks on a slot machine or blackjack table.
Fun Vegas’ skyline is the architectural equivalent of adopted son Liberace’s always over the top stage outfits, awash in colours so overbearingly bright sunglasses are almost a necessity even when taking a 4AM stroll along its four mile long neon-lit main drag (better known as the Strip) home to 31 of its approximately 103 casinos.
Then there’s not-so-fun Vegas, the Vegas where the city’s laser-like focus on tourism has trumped the need to provide adequate care on its social services front.
Many of the flood tunnel dwellers are examples of the city’s inability to properly address the fallout of an economy that’s based primarily on activities that stoke the fires of addiction. Gambling, alcohol, and ready access to illegal drugs make for a numbing cocktail many people can’t put down.
This is evident amongst tunnel occupants, the majority of whom suffer from severe drug and alcohol dependancy. As Las Vegas-based author Matthew O’Brien, whose 2007 book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas tells the story of his exploration of the tunnels and his ensuing interactions with residents, explains to Interesting Shit via email:
“You probably have 12 000 to 13 000 homeless people here (in Vegas) and few organizations working to house them and help them get clean and healthy. It just isn’t sufficient.”
The tunnels, now covered in graffiti that ranges from artful to practical (huge spray painted murals are scattered throughout, messages between residents act as a makeshift in-house postal service) were built in the early 1990s to help alleviate the effects of flash floods on the city.
That flooding is a constant threat for the occupants, some of whom have built semi-permanent elevated living spaces on top of discarded boxes and crates that keep what possessions they have out of the standing mix of water and sewage but aren’t structurally sound enough to withstand floodwaters. Rebuilding is a guaranteed occurrence, especially July through September when monsoon season is in full swing (O’Brien estimates heavy waters hit 2–3 times each year). The tunnel floods are also responsible for at least one drowning yearly.
O’Brien has personally seen people as young as 15 or 16 living in Vegas’ underground, and knows of younger children living in the tunnels, at least temporarily. Asked if residents have ever tried to form a unified front or collective of some fashion, O’Brien responds:
“No, they have not attempted to organize, but I have seen groups of 15 to 20 people living together down there as a community. Sharing food, drugs, money, etc.”
He also notes:
“…they don’t take kindly to new people moving in, especially if they may bring attention to (or heat on) the tunnels. Typically, they respect each other’s privacy. And if they don’t it could cause a problem.”
Besides flood waters, another major repeating hurdle to life underground (along with having to keep an eye open for scorpions) are city work crews that clean out the tunnels and dispose of many of the objects needed to construct living quarters. On the other hand, police presence is usually minimal, and residents prefer it that way. As O’Brien has observed in his tunnel forays:
“Most residents would not report crimes to the authorities, unless they are very serious crimes. They do not like to ‘snitch’ down there.”
While Interesting Shit spent its time in the tunnels seeking out residents and distributing food to them, it was quickly apparent the high level of help and assistance needed.
O’Brien himself founded Shine a Light, which works in tandem with HELP of Southern Nevada to supply basic day-to-day necessities as well as addiction counselling and medical services to those living in the tunnels. He’s also started a Crowdrise fundraiser, the proceeds from which are immediately put to use giving support to those who now have to call the tunnels ‘home’.
- Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority http://www.lvcva.com
- Profiles of the 50 Largest Cities of the United States http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0108543.html
- Burke, A., 2008. Sucked Into The Tunnels Beneath Las Vegas http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97800190
- El Akkad, O., 2013. What it’s like to live in a sewer below the bright lights of Vegas http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/what-its-like-to-live-in-a-sewer-below-the-bright-lights-of-vegas/article7551156/
- Leon, H., 2014. Inside the Tunnels Las Vegas’s Homeless Population Calls Home http://www.vice.com/read/inside-the-tunnels-las-vegass-homeless-population-calls-home
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