By Shanae Harte
Just a week before NABJ and NAHJ members headed to Las Vegas, heavy rainfall, booming thunderstorms, and flash floods pounded the city, disrupting the fast-paced daily life.
While most residents and visitors waited in their houses or rooms for the floodwaters to recede into the city’s flood drains, a notice of eviction was being served to folks that have made those drains their home.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development recently estimated that 7,090 residents of Las Vegas suffer from some form of homelessness. However, this data failed to account for the hundreds of Las Vegas residents who experience homelessness out of the sight of census data takers: those who live in a network of tunnels beneath the city designed to catch floodwaters.
Robert Banghart, the outreach director of the Shine A Light Foundation and program manager at Crossroads of Southern Nevada, said that the tunnel dwellers predicted Las Vegas’ most recent floods and moved their camps under bridges so that they could survive. But, “everything they had was gone.
“Camps that I’m used to seeing underground that are like these miniature cities are just wiped out,” Banghart said. “Even though we may look at it and think it’s not a lot, it’s everything they have.”
The conditions of those living underneath Las Vegas first came to light with former journalist Matthew O’Brien’s 2009 book “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas.” He discovered a community of 300 to 1,000 tunnel dwellers while researching a different story, and their warmness touched him.
“These people really welcomed me into their homes and shared their stories with me, and I wanted to give something back to these people,” O’Brien said.
He founded the Shine A Light Foundation in hopes that the book’s recognition would cause the government or non-profit organizations to offer assistance to occupants in the drain.
The book did bring months of international media attention to this community, but then they were forgotten, O’Brien said. Help was promised to the people who were driven into the tunnels because of some form of addiction, mental health issues or just a lack of better options. But the help never materialized, O’Brien said.
Authorities did not want to taint the glamorized image of what Las Vegas is like for potential tourists, he said. That’s when O’Brien started the Shine a Light Foundation to fill the void.
Banghart used to call the tunnels home, sharing the space with 10-40 people at different periods. He said addiction and poor life choices brought him to the place where the valley’s drains became his only option. While living there, he saw friends die during floods.
O’Brien’s book documents many such instances. In one noteworthy experience, a man named Ernie stayed in a pipe in the tunnel network for up to three days without food or water to survive Vegas’ devastating 1999 flood.
“I had no food, no water. I damn sure wasn’t going to drink that floodwater. I was screwed,” Ernie told O’Brien. “You’d think I’d have something in here for emergency situations like that, but in an emergency situation, you better not be down here or you’re dead.”
Ernie recalls the tunnels being dark and loud.
“There was two people who yelled, ‘Help!’” Ernie said. “But I didn’t see nothing, because I got as far back in my pipe as I could. Hell, I was starting to think about trying to dig my way out.”
Banghart said community members learned to predict the weather from their underground abode and move to higher ground before a flood. Some stubborn folks wouldn’t move and find themselves in trouble, he said.
Banghart left the tunnels after he was beaten and left for dead one night by people who disliked him. He went through therapy to recover from the injuries and then moved to Freedom House Sober Living, where he was given a 60-day scholarship to help him in his sobriety journey.
During his treatment, he noticed familiar faces in the facilities and learned about the Shine A Light Foundation, which did outreach every Saturday to bring tunnel residents into treatment. The tenacity of those volunteers inspired Banghart to help those who were living just like him.
“As it was at that moment, it was like five to 10 people going out every Saturday trying to build relationships, and they were hitting six, eight tunnels. And it was this all-day affair,” he said. “And I said, ‘You know what? I want to help.’”
Both Banghart and O’Brien have seen changes in the way those in authority react to the drain’s occupants. The local police department now collaborates with social workers, and the city provides grants to help the homeless.
“But it seems like it’s never enough, that enough is not being done,” O’Brien said. “Especially with the people in the tunnels, because you have to remember, there’s a lot of homeless in the Las Vegas area above ground and that are visible, and there’s not even enough resources to help those people.”
Banghart said a lot can be done if the state provided more resources to the nonprofit organizations that deal directly with those in the drains.
“We need more resources. We need more avenues to get people off the streets, where to place them, how to place them.” Banghart said. “It’s difficult. I think that we are making progress, but not at the pace it’s needed.”
The larger Las Vegas community also has a role to play, said Paul Vautrinot, executive director of the Shine A Light Foundation and program director at Freedom House Sober Living.
Vautrinot also used to live in the tunnels, and he knows that mistrust of authority figures is a problem.
“The experience you have with authority during any period of homelessness does not help develop a trust in that particular resource, it has to come from somewhere that is driven by altruism and not policy,” Vautrinot said.
The state, he said, needs to be ready to provide the money so that resources are available when people are ready to come in from the tunnels.
“The most I believe that can be done is access to enough beds to house the amount of homeless in the city,” he said. “We have a bottleneck situation where people have to wait to be housed when they are ready, which does not help the situation, as it only creates more mistrust.”
Trust is central to the transition from homelessness, Vautrinot said. People are being moved from a place they find comfortable to a place of uncertainty where their expectations may not always be met.
“Imagine walking away from everything you have built, stuff, relationships, hustle, routine, for something that might work out, and if it doesn’t, you have to start over,” he said. “The greatest challenge is getting them to trust that the way out can work to keep them from having to return”.
Banghart and O’Brien don’t know whether a day will come when the drains will be solely used for their designated purpose.
“There’s no way that one organization or a group of people could go down there and sweep people out or offer assistance to everyone down there who needs help,” O’Brien said. “I think you’re always going to have people who are homeless in Vegas. And if you’re homeless in Vegas, the tunnels, because it’s so hot in the summertime and so cold in the winter, the tunnels are always going to be an option for you.
“But my hope, and we’re getting kind of close to this, is that if you do live down there, you at least know that there is an opportunity to get out through Shine a Light or some other organization.”