Underneath Las Vegas are hundreds of miles of flood tunnels where a community of homeless men and women live in darkness, forgotten by the neon world above. For Matthew O’Brien, helping the people in the tunnels has become a 14-year passion project.
“I think it’s the contrast of the gambling cathedrals of the strip and then right down here you have people living on a cardboard mat in this black and grey underworld.”
— Matthew O’Brien
In 2002, journalist Matthew O’Brien discovered a vast homeless community living in the underground flood tunnels under the Las Vegas Strip.
“I was following a story about a criminal who used the underground flood channels to evade a police dragnet and I was curious about what he encountered down there,” Matt recalls.
Following his journalistic instincts, Matt and a fellow reporter, Josh Ellis, did some research and found some entry points where they could gain access to this hidden world.
“The first few tunnels that we peeked into were empty and lonely. It wasn’t until the third or or fourth one where we actually found someone,” says Matt. “I’ll never forget the image: a very pale small man in the fetal position just curled up on a blanket. He was unresponsive, but definitely alive.”
They kept on going, unaware they were about to stumble upon an entire community of homeless individuals living in these dark and dank catacombs.
Matt would learn that for the hundreds who reside in the tunnels, daily living is anything but easy. But it’s dry and relatively safe, and it’s one place in the city where the homeless can camp without the Police forcing them to move along.
“The most I ever went was seven days with nothing to eat,” says Billy, 46-year old veteran and nearly 7 year resident of the tunnels. “I fought for you and I’ve gotta stand here with a sign that says [points to sign that reads: Army Combat Vet Panama 89 Desert Storm 91–92] so you would give me something so that I don’t have to starve tonight or go dig in a damn dumpster.”
In the tunnels there is no electricity, so flashlights and headlamps are needed for most activities. Food and water is scarce and clean clothing is hard to come by.
“Yeah, boxers and socks are like gold down there.”
Matt spent years meeting people in the tunnels, listening to their stories and helping out when and where he could. And making real friends along the way.
“I’ve met a lot of really interesting amazing people. I’ve met some of my best friends down here actually and Billy is among those. He’s just a funny guy. He’s caring, he’s honest.”
The social dynamic can be difficult for the forgotten. Billy notes, “This is a rough place when it comes to people caring about other people. You’re not better than me. You’re still a person. You still bleed red, just like I do. We all have our problems.”
Knowing he had to do something, Matt published a book called Beneath the Neon in 2007 and in 2009 he started an organization called Shine A Light to focus on the needs of the tunnel community.
“The people in the underground flood tunnels are so appreciative of every little thing that is done for them. That’s one thing I’ve always admired about the people down there.”
Matt’s hope was that the spotlight on the tunnels would prompt the state or city government, or even the deep-pocketed casinos, to try to address the needs of the hundreds of men and women living below the strip.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, that has not happened.
So in January of 2016 Matt decided to try a new tactic to get attention and resources down to the tunnels: in partnership with CrowdRise’s 24-Hour Impact Project, Matt launched a CrowdRise campaign to help the community that he had become so close with (https://www.crowdrise.com/86402SecondsinVegas).
We need to raise $10,000 in the next 24 hours to help my homeless friends get back on their feet.www.crowdrise.com
The idea was simple. In 24 hours Matt wanted to raise $10,000 in order to provide basic needs (food, clothing, shoes and supplies) as well as job counseling, medical care and transportation to the tunnel residents.
As with anything like this, the day was a rollercoaster.
“Only about $50 came in during the first hour. It was a little scary. But then it started pouring in. In increments of $10, $20, $25 and it really added up to where I think we met our $10,000 goal in the first five hours of the fundraiser.”
He promised donors that he would spend the money the very next day and film the entire thing so they could see the immediate impact of their contribution. The campaign blew past its goal, raising nearly $14,000.
That’s $14k in just one day.
“People from around the world have been donating… It’s good to know there are people out there who care about this cause and want to help and want to create change.”
Not wasting any time, as soon as the money began rolling in, Matt started to spend it on items that many of the people down in the tunnels had been requesting: underwear, socks, batteries, headlamps and portable radios.
“So we went off to Target with the money and our video camera and just filled up shopping carts full of supplies.”
But not wanting to just be a band-aid solution, Matt has tried to focus on the individuals who really seem ready to make efforts to get out of the tunnels.
“Billy really wanted to try to get a job, so we got him new outfits, new shoes, a bike so he could get around, a storage unit to keep his stuff in, as well as dentures.”
As Billy had told Matt: “I’d love to be able to smile again…with my own teeth. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been to the dentist?”
And while Matt has been underwhelmed by the lack of response from government agencies as well as the casinos, he’s received an overwhelming response from strangers just wanting to help.
“Everyday citizens, in Las Vegas and out, are really interested in the topic, and these are some of the same people who donated to the fundraiser.”
When asked what he’s learned from his crowdfunding experience, Matt had this to say.
“This 24 hour fundraiser proved that you don’t have to be rich or donate a lot of money to make a difference. What I loved about what CrowdRise does is that they show you what’s needed and then they show your money being put to use. And the feedback I’m getting from people is that they’re very excited about getting to see that full process.”
Check out the video Matt sent to his donors highlighting the immediate impact of their donation a mere 48 hours after launching the campaign.
In terms of what’s next for himself and Shine a Light, Matt just wants to help where he can, while also thinking about the larger picture.
“We still have a nest egg here for Shine a Light [from the fundraiser]. And I don’t want to use it so much to buy socks and underwear, but for people who are making serious efforts to change their lives and get out of these tunnels. I want to be there to support them in that endeavor.”
Matt is also continuing to keep his donors updated through his social media channels so that they can see the lasting and incredible impact they’ve had on the community. And with updates like the one below about Billy, it’s hard not to remain excited and impressed by what Matt is doing down in Vegas.
And, even more good news. The fundraiser was the catalyst for Billy’s family to find him and extend a helping hand. They reached out to CrowdRise and were able to be connected to him through Matt.
Billy’s last day in the tunnels was April 19th, 2016.
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