Manic Monday: The Las Vegas Tunnel People

Monday, June 27, 2011




Tunnel people, you ask? Sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, doesn't it? Let me assure you, it's not. Most of us know about the large homeless populations in New York, Chicago, and D.C, to name only a few. But Las Vegas - the city known for glamour and frivolity - has a unique destination they don't advertise on their tourism brochures.

I first heard about the tunnels about a year ago, when I began researching my novel, tentatively titled Light and Dark. I needed a place for a would-be bank robber to escape, and I figured that a city built by the mob would have underground tunnels. So I Googled 'Las Vegas tunnels.' I was shocked at the articles that turned up: a thousand people live in the 200 miles of storm drains running underneath the city, and what's worse, the bulk of them live underneath the Strip!

Some, like the couple pictured above, live in camps decorated with whatever they can salvage. Others have virtually nothing.

Many have lost jobs due to the economy (Las Vegas has been among the hardest hit in the housing crisis) and many battle various addictions. Some are veterans suffering from post traumatic stress, and nearly all have been dumped into the tunnels because of traumatic events in their lives. They eek a living however they can, including surfing the slot machines for abandoned credits, a trick called "credit hustling."

And yes, children live down there as well. Reporter Matthew O'Brien, whose book Beneath The Neon chronicles the lives of the tunnel dwellers, says he's seen evidence of them, toys and teddy bears.

Can you imagine? These are storm drains! Dark, filthy, with an inch or more of standing water, crawfish (yes, crawfish in Las Vegas), cockroaches, spiders...you get the point. The tunnels may be a sanctuary from Vegas heat, but they're also in constant danger of flooding.

It's heartbreaking. And infuriating. Las Vegas is one of a many cities dealing with a major homeless problem, and many people want the truth swept under the rug, preferring to pretend the homeless don't exist or worse yet, blame them for their plight.

I don't care what vices a person has, everyone deserves a roof over their head and a clean bed to sleep in, especially in a country with such excess.

After I got over the initial shock, I knew escaping into the storm drains was perfect for my book. I had to create a plausible route into them, which was a fun creative challenge. But I also had to deal with the subject carefully. I didn't want to be insensitive to the people living down there, but I wanted to show a bit of what their lives might be like.

I purchased Beneath the Neon, and it's a sad read. O'Brien spent several years visiting the tunnels and getting to know the people, and his insight is invaluable. I was able to get a sense of the general geography of the tunnels, as well as some idea of how the people live and interact.

A handful of scenes in Light and Dark take place in the tunnels, and they were tough to write. My heart goes out to these people, and to all the homeless living across the country. How can we help them? What can I, a regular mom from Iowa, do to make a difference?

Donate to food pantries, to Salvation Army, to Goodwill, yes. But there has to be more. Americans have to stop turning a blind eye to the people living on the street - and under them - because a twist of fate could land a lot of us in their positions. How many of us live paycheck to paycheck, with only a house payment or less in our savings? What would your family do if you had no income for six months? Could you survive? I hope the answer is yes, but for millions of Americans, it would be no.

As politicians are battling over who gets paid more and debating which desperately-needed programs to slash, these people are suffering and more will continue to join them. Every one of us has the right to freedom, but we all have a responsibility to our fellow man.

I don't have the answer. But I know something has to change. What can we do to help?



Sources: NPR
Daily Mail
Matthew O'Brien

14 comments:

Lyn Midnight said...

You're a great researcher, you know that? This whole thing sounds horrible and I had NO idea! Granted, I don't live in the States but I am somewhat aware of my own country's homeless problem. Gypsies and such, who procreate more than us and their kids scour the streets, pickpocketing and begging for money so their parents could eat and clothe themselves.

Anyway, so now in addition to shocking me, this post has made me curious to read your book. As for what people can do... I used to have these beautiful ideals when I was little, convinced I could make a difference by starting small. Sometimes people do make a difference, but it has to be the community's doing, not the individual's unless they are influential.

It's just one of those things that never go away, sadly. But I couldn't agree more about what you said about excess. USA is a country of excess despite the economic crisis, and it's sad that people should live under streets. You know, I wonder what the circumstances behind their move is. Are they emigrants? Bankrupt businessmen? Starved artists? Tornado victims?

Yeap, very thought-provoking. :)

Stacy said...

Thanks. Honestly, I came across this by accident. I had no idea, either. I knew there where homeless but the idea of them living in the storm drains had never occurred to me.

It's so sad to hear about kids on the streets, especially when they're used as pawns. That's awful.

I know what you mean. It feels like the little things don't make much of a difference, but I feel we all have to do something. It definitely has to be the communities doing, and the government's. They need to address the situation properly.

We are absolutely a country of excess. More and more gadgets and crap come out, and people are going into debt just to keep up.

There's all sorts down there, including veterans. That's just mind boggling to me. They serve their country and then end up on the streets.

Thanks for the comment!

kelly garriott waite said...

Very interesting. I had no idea people actually lived in those tunnels. And you're right, when we think of homelessness, we tend to think NYC, DC. But there are two homeless people quite near the town in which I live--a suburban area.

Stacy said...

Thanks, Kelly. I didn't either. I did know about the Manhattan Tunnels, but those are pretty legendary. I think every city has homeless, even the smaller ones. We only have about 100K here and there are several out there.

Thanks for posting!

Jessica R. Patch said...

Wow. I had no idea. It's amazing what we find when researching isn't it? So glad you came aross this and shared.

I only wish I knew better answers. It makes me grateful for the things I do have and take for granted.

Thanks.

Stacy said...

Yes, it is. I've learned a lot through research in the pst year. Thanks for commenting, and I agree. No matter what hardships we're dealing with, we all have a lot to be thankful for.

wosushi said...

Very interesting. And sad.

catierhodes said...

I learned about this from Vicki Pettersson (who writes the Signs of the Zodiac series). I think the idea is fascinating. I love that you used it for your work in progress.

You're as big of a research hound as I am, aren't you?

(Florida) Girl said...

I was shocked and saddened to read this.

It does sound like an intriguing backdrop for your scene. Visiting from shewrites today.

Stacy said...

Wosushi
Yes, it's incredibly sad. Still shocks me every time I see the pictures.

Florida Girl,
It does make for an intriguing backdrop for the story. So glad you stopped over from shewrites.

Catie
Signs of the Zodiac? Never read, but I'll have to check out. It is fascinating. I knew as soon as I read about the tunnels I had to use them. And yes, bit of a research hound, lol!

Thanks for the comments!

Stacy S. Jensen said...

More proof that there's a whole world out there that's real (and great research, too). We have tons of people suffering right here at home. Our church participates in an interfaith program that serves homeless families. It aims to keep families together and children off the street. I've never been able to work as a host (with my wee one at home), but we always make food or donate fruit.

Stacy said...

Thanks, Stacy. Yes, there are so many people suffering. Your church has a great program, and there should definitely be more. Good for you for donating. I'm going to look into the churches around here and see if there's anything we can do.

cynthiarobertson said...

Wow. I've never heard of these tunnel people. That photo is haunting, Stacy. I can't imagine feeling safe enough to sleep there, if it were me.
Thanks for sharing this.

Stacy said...

You're welcome, Cynthia. Isn't it sad? I can't either, but some have been down there long enough they've grown comfortable. Beneath The Neon is a fascinating look at the culture.

Thanks for posting:)

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