Las Vegas, the home of glitz and glamour. The isolated city is a mecca for stag do’s, hen parties, and recently turned 21 Americans, rising out of the middle of the desert and presenting us with a new way in which to spend our money – gambling.
Therefore, it’s not surprising to learn that many of the cities inhabitants and even visitors, succumb to a viscious betting cycle, turning to drugs and resulting in poverty.
Homelessness then becomes an issue, something that is hard to imagine in such a rich and prosperous city. However, one of the many reasons people often don’t associate Las Vegas and homelessness, is because they have a very unique situation: the homeless are hidden, living below the ‘strip’ in extensive tunnels.
The Las Vegas flood tunnels are more commonly used as homes for around 1,000 people, living in extreme conditions. The city is known for its disastrous flash floods – many of the inhabitants live in fear of being ‘evicted’, so have all their possessions easily accessible should they need to escape.
Disturbing graffiti covers the walls, which are only visible by flashlight. These people live their lives continuously in the dark, unaware of the dangers from other inhabitants or environmental factors. One dweller has constructed a ‘booby-trap’, comprising of a can attached to a piece of string that rattled whenever people tripped it. He knows that the dangers of the tunnels are present and frightening.
Another man – responsible for the majority of the artwork covering the walls – took a more philosophical approach to his life beneath the ground. In his view, we are all ‘one step away from being homeless’ anyway, and the differences between himself and the people that walk the strip are not so stark.
This showed in the poetry that accompanied most of the images he drew; all very moving. He is treated like a celebrity amongst the tunnel community and quite visibly has the largest ‘residence’. It just shows how even a normal community atmosphere can arise in such conditions.
Most stories of how they came to be living in such conditions are common ones. Drug abuse, mental illness and an unfortunate life have forced them to the tunnels. One tenant described how psychological issues have trapped him under ground, preventing him and his girlfriend from leaving whenever they tried.
The inhabitants know that their situation is rarely discussed above ground, and therefore help is lacking. Police are reluctant to enter the tunnels due to the environment – the darkness means they never know what they could encounter. Instead, these people are left to fend for themselves and construct their own way of living.
However, this is not to say the people don’t enjoy their life under the strip. Vegas is a city built on commercial values and exploitation – the simple lives of the ‘tunnel people’ are in a way an appealing and refreshing break from the bold glare of the city. That said, next time you take a visit to ‘sin city’, be conscious that there is a much darker reality beneath the luminous surface of the casino lights.