Las Vegas’ Underground Strip: The Tunnel People
Las Vegas, also known as Sin City, is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. The city is home to hundreds of casinos and hotels visitors can relax in during their brief stay in Vegas. However, underneath the glitz and glamour are a series of maze-like drainage tunnels that have become homes to a community of people.
Homeless people have made the cold, dark and wet tunnels their new home after struggling to find shelter above the surface. Surprisingly, they’ve personalised tunnels, scrounging for abandoned furniture and decorating the tunnels with artwork to make the underground passageways feel more homely.
Author and activist Matthew O’Brien was one of the first to come across the community living in the tunnels and has made it his mission to help them. But how do these people, who have been dubbed ‘Mole People’ by the media, survive in the dark tunnels they call home?
Underneath the bright neon lights of Vegas are a series of 1,000 mile-long drainage tunnels that were built in the 1990s. The tunnels first gained notoriety in 2002 when criminal Timmy ‘TJ’ Weber used them to evade police after murdering his girlfriend.
However, the tunnels are now home to around 30 people and the residents claim they have everything except running water. The tunnels have rules and if residents don’t follow them, they’re asked to leave. The rules are simple; keep clean and respect others.
Throughout the tunnels are holes which were used to level off floodwaters but are now used as doors to different “rooms”. Some of the people living there turned the “rooms” into small, bungalows while other rooms are designated for rubbish or a makeshift bathroom. The residents even created an art gallery by dedicating a large chunk of the tunnel to beautiful, intricate graffiti. Others, however, created collage cut-outs that have been tapped in place to form scenes like graphic novels.
Meanwhile, many of the people living in tunnels worked hard to furnish their homes by scourging the city and bringing abandoned furniture back to their home. Some photos taken in the tunnels show bookcases and a queen-sized bed held up on an elevated platform in order to protect from flooding.
Life in the tunnels isn’t easy for the residents as they can easily lose all of their belongings due to flooding, referred to as “flushing the toilet” by residents. Water floods the tunnels regularly and washes belongings away or damages them in the process. The tunnels are particularly dangerous between July and September which is Nevada’s monsoon season.
While Las Vegas Valley only gets around four inches of rain annually, the water moves up to 30 miles an hour through the concrete tunnels and can fill up a foot per minute. However, many residents communicate and inform each other when it’s about to rain. When this happens, residents grab their valuables and escape the tunnels.
There have been reports of deaths from these floods and there have been at least 32 flash flood deaths in the area since 1960.In June 2016, rescuers found one woman’s body covered in debris in a wash near Mandalay Bay Road and Giles Street. Another person was rescued from the National Golf course while unresponsive but later died.
While the tunnels are dangerous for the inhabitants, they also protect them from the harsh Nevada sun. Since Las Vegas is in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the city is known for its extreme temperatures over the summer. Vegas can get as hot as 40℃ but in the tunnels, it can be almost 25℃ colder.
However, during the winter months, the tunnels can get extremely cold making it difficult to stay warm. In fact, some reports claim that the residents place their packaged meat products onto the ground because it’s cold enough to act as a makeshift refrigerator.
Many people die in the tunnels, some from drug overdoses and others from flooding or natural conditions. Some of the deaths could have been prevented if they had been somewhere with easy access to medical services.
Making A Living
Despite living in the tunnels, the residents still need to make a living in order to afford food. To do this, many visit casinos overnight to look for money that had been left behind or casino chips that gamblers had forgotten about. They cash the chips in for money and, according to one couple who live in the tunnels, they can make roughly $50 a day which is enough to survive on.
Many of the people living in the tunnels need to make a living not only for themselves but for their children too. Matthew O’Brien claimed that children also lived in the tunnels alongside adults and were most likely their own. While exploring the tunnels, O’Brien found children’s toys and other amenities adults don’t need.
However, he explained that most adults do their best to keep their children out of site and to protect them.
The Tunnel People
Many of the people living in the tunnels are doing so temporarily after being down on their luck and just needing a place to stay. They have skills and qualifications to get jobs and just need to be offered an opportunity to do so. Other tunnel residents, however, are aware that they’ll never be able to leave the underground passageways.
Some people in the tunnels have been living there for a year or more but have managed to build a stable “home” for themselves. Several investigations led by news sites and channels interviewed some of the residents including a special NBC news report.
The ABC News Report
An ABC news report from September 2009 by Lisa Ling explored the underground tunnels with Matthew O’Brien and met several of the tunnels’ residents.
One such couple was Steve and Katherine who have lived in the tunnels for over five years and managed to create a “bungalow” furnished with a bed, wardrobe and bookshelves during that time. The pair made the tunnel more homely by hanging paintings on the walls, collecting abandoned books from libraries and creating a make-shift shower out of a water cooler. Their possessions are placed on pallets, concrete blocks or plastic crates to stop them from getting damaged by the flooding.
In the 2009 news report, O’Brien ran into Steve who was riding his bike through the pitch black tunnels. He eventually led the reporters back to his home before revealing that his and his fiance’s bed had come from a skip outside an apartment complex. However, Steve stated that the couple only get stuff “late at night” so people don’t see them because it’s embarrassing.
Steve was forced into the tunnels in 2007 after his heroin addiction led to him losing his job. Though he later became clean, he and Katherine survive by visiting casinos and checking slot machines for money or chips. Surprisingly, Steven claims he once found almost $1,000 at one machine.
Despite making the tunnel their home, the pair told ABC News that they’d move out as soon as they could.
Steve also introduced the ABC reporters to some of their neighbours including Phil who had lost his job and a year and a half before the report. He had been working at the Onyx, an apartment complex, behind Hooters casino before he lost his job and ended up in the tunnels.
When the reports met Phil, he was reading an issue of Sports Illustrated and revealed he spends his extra money by betting on sports in the hopes of leaving the tunnels.
Following ABC’s report, other news sites and channels launched their own investigations into the tunnels, venturing into the passageways themselves to meet what many people called “Mole People”.
In the tunnels were couple Amy and Junior who had married at the Shalimar Chapel, one of Vegas’ most popular venues, during their time in the tunnel. The pair lost their home and became addicted to drugs following the death of their four-month-old baby, Brady. The pair lived under the staircase outside the MGM casino before they met a homeless man who lived in the tunnels and introduced them to it.
One report by VOA met a man named Chris who agreed to be filmed but didn’t want to be interviewed. The man took shelter at the tunnel’s entrance and worked as a “guard” alerting his neighbours to the arrival of visitors. Some residents informed reports that they lived like a family and each has their own duties to perform, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry work or guarding the tunnels.
A man named Craig who has been living in the tunnels since 2011, took on the role of Mayor. He’s the only tunnel resident who receives payment, earning around $800 per month from social security. Before VOA’s 2018 interview, Craig would gamble the money away at casinos but claims he no longer does it.
A 2014 report by Harmon Leon for Vice saw her and Matthew O’Brien enter the tunnels. During their expedition, the pair met John, a man who moved to Vegas because it was a “destination city”. John recalled how he had left his wife and kids to leave for Vegas before discovering that the Vegas lifestyle wasn’t what he had originally imagined.
In the same report, Leon and O’Brien encountered couple Cindy and Rick who lived in a damp tunnel space reeking of sewage. When Leon had originally visited the pair in 2012 they had been struggling with addiction and had lived in the tunnel for over a year. The pair moved to the tunnel after Rick’s mother died from cancer, they had been living with her in a seniors complex and were required to move out immediately after her death.
A Helping Hand
All the meanwhile, Matthew O’Brien has been attempting to help the tunnel’s residents since discovering them after researching the Timmy ‘TJ’ Weber murder case. O’Brien, a reporter at the time, wanted to understand what Weber had experienced when hiding out in the tunnels to avoid police.
After discovering the community of homeless people that had made the tunnels their home, he created the Shine A Light Foundation which aims to help “the hundreds of men, women and children who live in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas”.
The foundation offers services such as housing, drug counselling, job training and more in order to help the tunnel’s residents. The charity also gives out supplies such as bottled water, food, underwear, flashlights and headlamps to make life easier.
O’Brien also published a book titled Beneath The Neon which features images showing the tunnel’s residents’ way of life. While Las Vegas authorities refuse to care about the homeless that struggle to live underneath the bright city, O’Brien and other members of the foundation continually try to convince the homeless that there’s better shelter and encourage them to move out of the dangerous, cold and deadly tunnels that they call home.