Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of Austin Hargrave
The irony is hard to overlook. There are few, if any, cities on earth where the show of wealth and consumption is so shamelessly on display, and yet hidden beneath the surface of Las Vegas, another world exists.
In sobering contrast with the bright lights and bustle of the famous strip up above, dispossessed people inhabit the storm drains that run below, venturing up into the casinos to make ends meet scouring the slot machines for coins or credits left by drunken gamblers.
To those enjoying the extravagant, gaudy entertainment of the Vegas people know and love it this place would be alienating in the extreme, and even to many of those who live and work in the Nevada playground, the echoing, pitch-black recesses below street level are probably best left unseen. Even so, these tunnel people are an unknown no more; the flashlight is beginning to flicker on their faces.
Dank, dark and cobwebbed the over 200 miles of labyrinthine tunnels running underneath Sin City may be, but they are home to an underground community, scattered in pockets, that may easily number hundreds of individuals. The dwellings these people have made for themselves can be as basic as a few blankets or as elaborate as living spaces complete with double beds and kitchen areas.
Possessing little of their own, the tunnel people of Las Vegas yet display a remarkable ingenuity in making do with what they’ve got – and what they can find – with resourcefully fashioned furnishings, shelving and damp-resistant crates piled with belongings; and in the case of lovers Steven and Kathryn even a makeshift shower made from an office drinking water dispenser.
While offering a guided tour of his home to The Sun, Steven Dommermuth – who moved into the tunnels after he lost his hotel front-desk job because of a heroin problem – explains: “We use our imagination a lot. Our bed came from a skip outside an apartment complex. It’s mainly stuff people dump that we pick up. One man’s junk is another man’s gold.”
Of course, the concreted tunnels that crisscross beneath Las Vegas offer none of the sham glitz and entertainment on offer above ground. Extensive graffiti murals are about as good as it gets; and this urban netherworld is riddled with very real hazards. Disease and venomous spiders are just two of the hidden menaces to those living here, and the risk of flash floods is extremely serious in winter.
When flash floods strike the desert floor Vegas lies on, they are often torrential, and naturally the flood tunnels fill up extremely quickly and can fast become death traps. Cases of drowning are not uncommon, many of those involving people living in the tunnels. Then, even without the threat of being washed away, inhabitants must daily splash through stagnant, dirty water, several feet of which can gather.
So what draws people to live this shadowy subterranean existence? Homelessness is obviously the key issue facing the tunnel people, with some forced underground by the recession and difficult job market. Drug and alcohol addiction are rife, and for many the underground network offers a place where they can be free from society’s constraints and the reach of the law.
For some of their inhabitants, the tunnels are where they feel safest, and yet few outsiders who’d dare explore Vegas’ dark underbelly could say the same. Even residents carry a weapon of some description and the police rarely come unless they’re called. Yet despite the dangers of this eerie and remote environment – mostly built in the last 25 years – to certain types of people the tunnels are home.
Most of the residents here scrape a living off the wild excesses of life on the strip by begging and dumpster diving – raiding bins and skips – or else by looking for cash left behind in slot machines – a game known as the credit hustle. Nevertheless, the economic downturn has impacted even on this means of income, with more people credit hustling and Vegas itself hit by declining tourism.
Hardships aside, the tunnels offer some benefits to the homeless. Some say the heat is unbearable in the summer, but Amy, who has lived here with her husband for two years, told The Sun: “It’s much cooler than on the streets, we get a breeze coming through and the cops don’t really bother you. It’s quiet and everyone helps each other out down here. I hope to get out one day. But I want to stay in Las Vegas.”
Clearly it’s a matter of perspective. For some, entering this underground system of tunnels would be unthinkable; for others – like those with little more than the shirt on their backs – it’s the best of a bad situation – claustrophobia, cockroaches, nasty smells and all. What’s more, as writer Matthew O’Brien points out: “To come out of the tunnel and face the world is intimidating for some of the people.”
O’Brian has been exploring the tunnels for over five years and wrote a book about the people who live there, Beneath The Neon, published in 2007. He has worked to get people housed, recently founded the Shine A Light foundation to offer various forms of aid, and guides social workers through the tunnels to offer services to the people like health and drug counselling.
All the same, O’Brian is wary of letting the inhabitants get too comfortable and entrenched in the tunnels and so doesn’t like to give out too much in the way of food, water, clothes and blankets.
Storm drains are dangerous places to be: during flash floods, water can travel as fast and 30 mph through the tunnels with levels rising as much as one foot per minute. Then no one wants to be down there.
As revellers win in Caesar’s Palace, Paris and Planet Hollywood, most daren’t look down at the reality that lies beneath them, and fortunately for them, a thick, dividing layer of concrete obscures the view.
With special thanks to Austin Hargrave for kindly permitting us to use his photography.