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?