A club without music and a casino without gambling are not reality. So what’s a city without homeless people? Well, that could be how Las Vegas is attempting to construct its counter-reality. In November 2019, a law was passed making it illegal to sleep on the streets of Downtown and in residential public areas when there are open beds at city homeless shelters. And, violators can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The conversation surrounding Las Vegas’ growing homeless population is nothing new. For more than a decade, author Matthew O’Brien has been exploring the everyday life of the homeless in Las Vegas to gain a better understanding of the issue. A residency that was intended to be just two years became many more after O’Brien went into the belly of the beast—the drains—armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and expandable baton for protection. His first book, titled Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas uncovers the mystery of what goes on in the Las Vegas storm drains where many of the homeless live. And finding out “What’s beneath the neon?” was only the beginning for him.

Keeping the homeless off the streets of Las Vegas has meant the homeless now live below the streets of Las Vegas. The storm drains have become a home to many. Some individuals are residents of the tunnels for a short period of time and others for 10 years or more. We may ask ourselves how someone becomes homeless. And while some of us expect a straight forward answer, O’Brien seeks a deeper understanding. In his most recent book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains, he gives the reader a seat at the metaphorical table, allowing them in on the conversation with those individuals who make their home in the drains.

Life in the Storm Drains

Vegas Storm Drains
Photo Credit: Gilberto Campos

Beneath the streets of Las Vegas are concrete pits which drain the rainwater away after it storms. However, if it doesn’t rain, then the storm drains remain dry, making a shelter for the homeless. In Dark Days, Bright Nights O’Brien explains, “In 1985, after a series of floods crippled Las Vegas, the state legislature created the Clark County Regional Flood Control District. The goal was to reduce flooding by building a network of channels.” He continues, “The flood channels are not a prominent feature of Vegas’s landscape or lore. They lie low, in off-the beaten-path places, blocked off by walls and chain link fences or camouflaged by the beige desert floor.”

There are multiple entrances to these tunnels throughout the city. They are dark and they are dangerous but for some, they are the best situation. Las Vegas heat can reach 102 degrees and is the most arid desert in North America. The tunnels provide a roof, a place to come back to (if the floods don’t force you out), and even a sense of community. But what O’Brien seeks is, how exactly does someone uncover the drains? 

(Dark Days, Bright Nights pg. 3) “Barry, 48, a sex offender from Howell, Michigan came to Las Vegas after an 18-year incarceration. ‘In prison I’d seen that show “Modern Marvels” on the History Channel and they talked about the flood channels, so when I got to Vegas I just walked around town looking for ’em. Down past the “Welcome” sign I found one and figured I’d check it out. It was dark, scary. I was wondering who I’d meet. Any decent people or just rats, spiders and trash. I had a flashlight on me. I always carry one.’” He continued to share his story of how ended up moving into the drains, “That’s when I ran into Kregg. He’d lived down there a while and they called him “The Mayor.” He had a wall of plastic up and I knocked on it and talked to him for a couple minutes. Told him my name, where I was from, what I was in prison for, and his response was, “There’s room farther down to make a camp, but don’t tell no one what you were in prison for.”

O’Brien discovers the various reasons as to why and how people end up living in the storm drains. One guy named Ricky Lee brought himself to the drains because of watching Vincent from Beauty and the Beast live in tunnels. Ricky shares, “I wanted to do that too.” Another resident, Tex, makes the tunnels his home because “Vegas doesn’t like homeless people.”

Why Las Vegas?

“‘How did you end up in Vegas?’ A simple question that usually yields a complicated answer,” writes O’Brien. To say that Sin City isn’t enticing with its bright lights, around the clock ventures, and high-energy tourists would be a lie. And just like anywhere else, people move to Vegas with an idea or a vision of how it will go. Some individuals who now live in the tunnels ran away to Vegas and others ran to something in Las Vegas—a job or a romance or whatnot.

(Dark Days, Bright Nights pg. 56) “Tommy, 61, is a recovering alcoholic who lived in the tunnels for five years. …: ‘The day I got off probation I split. I said I’m done with this place and I came to Las Vegas. It was something different, a party place. I’d heard you could drink 24/7 and that sounded good to me.’”

(Dark Days, Bright Nights pg. 71) “Phil: … ‘Eventually I took a job in Las Vegas with Fletcher Jones Toyota. I was their lead mechanic. I was thinking, Hallelujah! That’s the best way to explain how I felt about Vegas. With my mechanic’s job and street smarts I knew I could thrive there. All those lights. All that money. All that opportunity. I could’ve never guessed it would end up like this.’”

O’Brien’s chapter titled “Sin City” displays the search for clarity, a reset, a way to reconnect and find ourselves—something that we all long for no matter what our financial or social status is. When reading the stories of each individual and how they find  themselves waking up under the Las Vegas sun, you will recognize the commonality of wanting a fresh start.

The Good, The Bad and, The Ugly

Vegas Storm Drains
Photo Credit: Gilberto Campos

O’Brien explains, “Life in the drains contains common themes—trauma, addiction, resourcefulness—but the day-to-day experience can vary widely.” His interviews in the chapter titled “Life Below” settle our curiosities of what life for residents of the drains is typically like. Is bathing available or is that luxury? How do the homeless generate income to support their addictions? Are there rules? CELEB speaks to O’Brien for details beyond what the chapter goes into.The drains do in fact have a “mayor.” However, it’s not necessarily a democracy. 

“Yes there is a hierarchy down there where you have communities and in certain tunnels they’ll just be one or two people on their own, but you will find groups of 10, 15, 20 or more people living together or very close together and there is an order to things,” he says. “Sometimes it’ll be the person who’s been there the longest. But a lot of times it is the toughest, meanest person who calls the shots on things. For example, I would take film crews down and we would interview the people and I would go in ahead of time without the film crew. I would ask for permission to come down and film.” He continues “a lot of time I would have to address one person who would speak for the rest of the community.”

(Dark Days, Bright Nights pg. 101) “Half Pint: ‘I was scared s–tless. I got f–ked up and was raped numerous times by a group of men. When I came to, I started trying to be Miss Martial Artist and I was raped again. I passed out. When I woke up they weren’t there and I went through their stuff and stole their pills and pipes. Big mistake. I went deeper into the tunnel, but they found me and beat me up.’”

Although someone may be in charge, the storm drains show no mercy. Crime is inevitable and so is the possibility of losing everything in the blink of an eye due to an intentional fire or an unexpected flood. O’Brien’s chapter titled “Sky High” shines light into the dark tunnels, humanizes the residents and displays a sense of hope. He wrote about the “camaraderie, tranquility, ingenuity, decorum, humanity, [and] love” that also takes place within the storm drains. O’Brien asks the residents, “What was your happiest moment in the drains?”

(Dark Days, Bright Nights pg. 123) “Ricky Lee: …’Every now and then, we’d have barbecues in the tunnels. Jazz would steal the food. We’d build a makeshift grill. Of course alcohol was served. It was usually me, Ervin, Red, Butch and Jazz. The cops would come and tell us to keep the noise and smoke down. We’d have a good time, especially on the Fourth of July.’”

The Light at the End of the Tunnels

Prior to writing Dark Days, Bright Nights Matthew O’Brien wrote Beneath the Neon with the intention of bringing awareness to the situation in the drains.

“Part of the idea of Beneath the Neon was to raise awareness. And I was hoping that the government or a non-profit or other activists would get involved in the issue in some way. Of course, my worst fear [as I’ve said before] was that the cops are just going to go down there and sweep everyone out. Neither one of those things were realized so a couple of years after Beneath the Neon came out I was like ‘well maybe i should just start something on my own and see what it leads to,” he says. “I started Shine a Light in 2009 as a community project. Very grass roots. It was really run out of the upstairs closet of my apartment in Las Vegas. And I would give water or canned goods. What I did became more like a community project where people would donate stuff to me and I was the middleman for people who wanted to help and people who were down in the tunnels.” 

O’Brien teamed up with social workers from HELP of Southern Nevada along with other organizations who could offer larger scale assistance such as housing and counseling. And after moving to Central America in 2017 to write and teach, O’Brien passed Shine a Light off to a non-profit called Freedom House Sober Living

“It’s now a program at Freedom House and it’s run by a couple guys who used to live in the tunnels,” he says. “In the past three or four years they’ve taken it and made it bigger and more official with more funding so it’s doing quite well.”

Shaggy is a former resident of the tunnels who you meet in the book and now has an important role in Shine a Light. He shares, “two cops and a cricket saved my life.” A cricket got in the way of him shooting up and while trying to go after the cricket he crossed paths with two cops. A warrant was out for his arrest and he managed to get weekend jail time and landed in a drug-court program. “I ended up doing really well in the program. I got MVP and a job at the carwash next to the tunnel entrance. I worked there from four months of sobriety to 22 months. I saw the people I’d lived with and did what I could to help them with encouraging words and a few dollars here or there. I ended up being a supervisor at the carwash, and they all watched me grow out of that stage of my life.”

The Author Speaks

Vegas Storm Drains
Photo Credit: Gilberto Campos

“Part of my goal with this book was to address the issue, to maybe negate some of the stereotypes and generalizations that we have about homeless people,” says O’Brien. “A lot of the writing I had done about the homeless and a lot of the writing I have read about the homeless is focused on while they’re homeless or right when they got housed. And, I wanted to broaden that scope quite a bit and try to get to the true root causes of homelessness.” 

One of the first questions O’Brien asks is “what is your earliest memory?” He then walks through their childhood and education, which begins the conversation about their time being homeless. He also goes beyond homelessness by asking “How’d you get out of the tunnels?,” “What were the challenges?” and “What were the lessons you learned?” O’Brien shares, “I just wanted to take a fuller look at the homeless issue than what we typically see.”

(Dark Days, Bright Nights pg. 195) “Cyndi: ‘Treat the homeless like people, not subhumans. Give ‘em a sandwich, a bottle of water, a dollar. Talk to ‘em. Tell ‘em you’re gonna say a prayer for ‘em. Tell ‘em to not give up. Give ‘em some hope. That’s what I was given.’”

So what exactly is it that causes homelessness? Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains will help you begin to understand.

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