Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tunnels of Las Vegas — more photos

Hundreds of people live in the hidden matrix of tunnels beneath the Las Vegas Strip.

Journalist Matt O'Brien has spent five years exploring the storm drains.

O'Brien finds that despite the grit, the tunnels can be a refuge.

One could easily walk by a tunnel entrance without even considering that there's life below.

Photos from NPR article, reprinted on this blog post.

Tunnels of Las Vegas — more

Sucked Into The Tunnels Beneath Las Vegas
by Adam Burke

December 4, 2008

It would be easy to go a whole weekend on the Las Vegas Strip without spotting a sign of a crisis. Never mind that more than 14,000 people are living on the streets — and that Nevada ranks second in the nation in homeless population per capita.

Seeing evidence of this is a matter of knowing — or perhaps choosing — where to look.

One might begin with the slot machines on a busy casino floor — tourists, blackjack tables, cocktail waitresses in impossibly tiny outfits. And if one were willing to pay the price of admission, an elevator could transport the seeker to more vice and excess upstairs — rooftop pools and lavish suites. But the homeless still wouldn't be found.

But what if there were an elevator that went downward? Let's say that you could descend below the sunken lounges, past kitchens and utility closets, through layers of concrete. It is here that Las Vegas' truly gritty underbelly can be found; a hidden matrix of tunnels beneath the Strip, another version of the city born out of storm drains.

Matt O'Brien, a Las Vegas writer, has been exploring this underworld for several years. On one particular evening, he's outfitted sort of like a commando, with heavy boots, backpack and an industrial-sized flashlight that could double as a weapon.

"I've been exploring these storm drains for more than five years," he says sloshing through muck and gravel that blanket the tunnel floor. "I think I know these storm drains better than anyone who doesn't actually live in them. And I know the storm drain system probably — and this is nothing to brag about — better than anyone else."

No reason to doubt him. In 2007, O'Brien published a book, Beneath the Neon, about the 300 miles of underground tunnels that crisscross beneath the city.

"So, yeah, now we're moving underneath Caesar's Palace. Walking underneath kind of the main property there. This is one of the creepier areas of the storm drain system. Very remote, wet … extremely dark."

It's after 9 p.m. on a weekday night. The Vegas Strip is bustling above. The stage shows are under way. In the tunnels, there is stale air and utter darkness.

At one point, the tunnel widens to form a chamber. Above is a metal grate and, somewhere beyond that, the sky. The plump, almost illegible cursive of graffiti lettering covers the walls — beautiful colors and designs — that can be seen by flashlight.

"This is one of the underground art galleries that I discovered down in the storm drains. Basically, you walk in about a half-mile in pitch dark, and you have artwork going down the walls that goes down for about a half-mile," O'Brien says.

Ahead, the tunnel devours the flashlight beam. Noises make him stop and shine the light back in the other direction.

O'Brien offers something like reassurance. "There's always the butterflies. There's always that apprehension when you walk into a storm drain. Just because you've been in the drain the day before, that doesn't mean it's going to be the same environment [when you come] down the next day," he says. "I've met people down in the drains — you'll come down the next day, and all of a sudden, you know, they'll tell you to screw off. They'll kind of reach for their shank or their self-defense weapon and make it clear they don't want to talk to you today."

Over the years, O'Brien has met more than a hundred people who live in the tunnels. They're scattered in pockets across the city.

He leads ahead, away from the trickling water, down a side channel that stays dry most of the time. The ceiling gets lower, the corridor narrower and the air becomes stale with the faint scent of body odor and human waste. There's an encampment, a kind of cardboard lean-to.

"Yo! Anyone here?," O'Brien says.

No one.

Soon there are signs of life. The forms of two men show in the glow of candlelight. One of them, with a shag of greasy hair, is slumped on a couch. In front of him, on a makeshift coffee table, are a few hypodermic needles. The other man is better groomed, and wearing a button-down shirt and a decent pair of slacks.

They greet O'Brien enthusiastically.

Their names are Brian and Steve. They haven't seen O'Brien since he was down here last Thanksgiving.

Steve talks about how they returned to their camp that day to find O'Brien had left them Thanksgiving dinner. "Big turkey and stuffing. It was pretty good," he says.

Steve is the well-dressed one. He's 42 and grew up in Las Vegas. And he makes his living at casinos around town, doing what's known as "silver mining," which means he looks for credits left behind on slot machines.

"You know, I'll start at Harrah's. And depending on how I feel, I'll go to either the Venetian and the Mirage. A lot depends on how I look, because those are two very hard places. If you don't look right, they'll stop you and watch you. It's always busy at Harrah's, so you're able to walk through the casino without drawing much attention to yourself."

To blend in, they need to dress the part. That explains the rack of button-down shirts and slacks. He shows off his quarters, defined by cardboard walls: a queen-sized bed, a dresser, even a makeshift shower.

Steve says his luck varies. The night before, he'd visited several casinos, and things hadn't been going well.

"Then I went to the Bellagio. I was walking through and turned the corner in one area of the casino, and there on the machine was $116. Nobody around, so I hit the cash-out button. Took it, cashed it out, and that was the end of my night. Helped me out today. I ate very well today. I had a late breakfast last night. And I still have about 50 bucks left," he says.

But Steve is addicted to methamphetamine and gambling, so holding on to money can be difficult.

"That's what I'm trying not to do is gamble my money away any more. And as far as the drugs, I'm trying to slowly get myself to where I don't crave it. Tonight, I'm taking it easy. I figure I'll just call it an early night and see what I can do tomorrow," he says.

After a while in the Las Vegas storm drains, it's easy to lose one's bearings — to forget that directly above is a very different world. O'Brien is often struck by the contrast.

"You can be in the Hard Rock Casino, which is one of the hipper, kind of younger, richer casinos in town, kind of celebrity-watching people, people watching, betting thousand dollars per hand in a game of blackjack. And right underneath the Hard Rock is one of the worst Skid Rows I've ever seen in my life," he says.

There are broken bottles, hypodermic needles strewn all over the tunnel floor and people passed out.

"And last time I was down there, I actually saw some blankets and teddy bears and stuff, which gave me the impression that a young kid was living down in there with a mom or dad, or both."

That contrast is what keeps O'Brien coming back to the tunnels, long after the book was finished. He brings food and clothing to people like Brian and Steve. And the tunnels have become a kind of refuge for him from the city.

"When work wasn't going all that great, or my relationship with my girlfriend wasn't that great, I would strap on the boots and grab my flashlight, my gear in the trunk. And a lot of times I would just gear up and walk a tunnel. In some ways, there are certain things about underground Vegas that I prefer to aboveground Vegas."

A long tunnel leads out to the dark recesses of a parking structure.

A few more steps, and it's back in a crush of pedestrians on the Las Vegas Strip. O'Brien looks a little out of place, with his dark clothing, knit cap and muddy boots, still clutching that heavy-duty flashlight.

Studying O'Brien, decked out in his tunnel gear, an idea hits: Maybe he should become the official guide to the storm drains. Visitors could explore the underbelly of Las Vegas; they would meet real live human casualties of a city that trades on excess.

Then again, that might just be too much reality in a town that prides itself on artifice. And besides — glancing around at all the tourists, no one's checking out the gutters. They're all looking up, at the flicker and pulse of the lights.

From NPR dot com.

Tunnels of Las Vegas — Photos

Tunnels of Las Vegas

In the underground world beneath the Las Vegas strip, Nightline's Lisa Ling met Iron, a tunnel regular, who's made a makeshift home there. Note: no apparent tramp stamp.

Under Las Vegas: Tunnels Stretch for Miles
Dark Side of 'Sin City': Homeless Live in Tunnels Beneath Casinos on the Strip
Sept. 23, 2009

Millions of tourists walk up and down the Las Vegas strip every year, looking to have fun and make some money. But beneath the flashing lights, there is a much darker side of Las Vegas.

Underneath Sin City's most famous casinos is a secret world: a labyrinth of tunnels that run for miles under the Las Vegas Valley. Built to protect the desert city from flash floods, the tunnels have become home to hundreds of Las Vegas' homeless.

Nightline visited the underground world beneath the Las Vegas strip, with Matthew O'Brien, author of "Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas," as our guide.

"Even after exploring these tunnels for seven years, you still have a bit of anxiety when you're walking into the tunnels because you never know what you're going to find," O'Brien said. "You never know what's waiting in the dark."

O'Brien introduced us to Iron, a tunnel regular, who's made a makeshift home in a tunnel with a view of the strip that some hotel guests pay top dollar for.

"That's pretty much it, just a blanket and some pillows right now, because everything I had got washed away," he said as he led us into his tunnel, so low overhead that we had to crouch. "It's kind of dirty, I wasn't expecting company."

When he become homeless seven years ago, Iron said moving into the tunnels took some coaxing.

"It took them months to get me into these tunnels; I used to be scared to death of these tunnels, I wouldn't come in here," Iron said. "Finally I came in, but at the beginning, I wouldn't go no further than this. Now I'll go all the way in."

For Iron and other city homeless, the tunnels provide refuge from the blazing summer heat.

"You're going to get the shade. It's cooler in here," Iron said, "Over the summer, it was 115 degrees, it's 15 degrees cooler in here."

The Dark Underside of Las Vegas

But there are real dangers. Rain waters can fill them up with more than a foot of water per minute, washing away camps like Iron's.

In the underground world beneath the Las Vegas strip, Nightline's Lisa Ling met Iron, a tunnel regular, who's made a makeshift home there.

"They can be very dangerous, said O'Brien. "A lot of [the dwellers] are really good about communicating with each other about when it's about to rain, so they can just grab their valuables and get out, and leave everything else behind."

The tunnels have been a refuge for convicted criminals, like Timmy T.J. Weber, who used them in the summer of 2002 to evade a massive police manhunt for weeks. It was Weber's story that brought O'Brien to explore the tunnels.

"That got me interested in what [Weber] heard in these tunnels, what he smelled, what he saw. And so I followed his path, and then I continued to explore other tunnels," O'Brien said. "We were not expecting to find people ... That was just not something that was on our mind. And when we stumbled upon the first camp, when you see the silhouette of a bed and a makeshift grill and a person, it's a strange experience."

Exploring the Tunnels' Underworld

A half mile into a tunnel that runs beneath Caesar's Palace -- a major landmark on the strip -- it was eerily quiet, even though thousands of people filled the streets above.

Amidst the darkness, holes in the walls are designed to level off flood waters, but also serve as doors, O'Brien explained. Areas are designated for garbage, a makeshift bathroom -- and even graffiti art.

As O'Brien led the way, it wasn't long before we ran into Steve, who was riding his bike through the pitch-black tunnel that he calls home. He's a Las Vegas native who moved underground two years after a drug problem left him homeless. He guided us to the spot in the tunnel he shares with his fiancé Katherine, who moved in with him a year ago, after he agreed to stop using drugs.

"We fell in love…We want to get out of here, that's always our main goal. We don't want to live like this forever," he said. "We don't like living in the tunnels. We live here because we can, and we're not bothered by anyone. The police and people like that don't really know that we're down here. You know, it's a lot of out-of-sight, out-of-mind."

The couple has worked hard to make it as homey as possible.

"Just because we live outside doesn't mean we can't be comfortable," Steve said, showing off a makeshift shower he'd crafted from a water jug and a spout. "Our just fine…Need a little privacy, just put the curtain up."

Steve introduced us to some of their neighbors, like Phil, who has also battled addiction. He told us he lost his job about a year and half ago, when the economy started to sour.

Sleep by Day, Casino Slots by Night

"I worked at the Onyx, which was behind Hooters casino. It was a condominium structure, and that was four years. So, I had four years of actually being off the street and in an apartment. So that was rather nice," he said. "And then once the economy got bad, there was no work. Unemployment didn't last forever, so I ended up back here."

When we met Phil, he was reading an issue of "Sports Illustrated," catching up on the latest scores, to place his bets -- in hopes of winning big in one of the casinos above him.

"I bet sports, thinking that I'm going to hit it rich and get out of this situation," Phil said, "but everyone who comes to Vegas thinks the same thing I'm thinking."

Many tunnel dwellers survive by venturing out to the casinos at night to scour the slot machines for credits tourists left behind -- a practice known as credit-hustling.

"There's lots of money in the casinos. All you have to do is just keep your eyes open," Steve said. "You can find money on the ground. People leave money in the slot machines without realizing it. ...I don't mind taking money from those who live a life of decadence."

$50 a Day

Sleeping by day and playing the slots by night, Steve and Katherine said they earn about $50 a day or more, which is enough to live -- even splurge for a movie once in a while.

"When you're living down here, it can be bleak -- very bleak. It's easy to come back here and think, just give me something. Just get high," Steve said. "That's why it's very helpful to have someone with you that you really love, through thick and thin, in tough times, because it hasn't been easy, not at all."

While they've made the tunnel their home, the couple said they'd move out tomorrow if they could.

"We don't plan a month ahead of time or whatever. Right now, we're living day to day. We get up, we have to survive. So it's hard for us to really look to the future."

It's all about survival -- trying to keep the darkness at bay, one day at a time.

"I think you'll find down here, just because it's dark, no electricity," said Katherine, "time kind of stands still."

From ABC News dot com.