October 6th, 2009
04:00 PM ET

“Out of sight, out of mind?” Underground in the tunnels of Las Vegas

Editor's Note: Tune in tonight to hear more about the underground tunnels from Ted Rowlands. AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/10/06/art.lasvegas.tunnels.jpg caption="Inside a living space in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas."]

Michael Cary
CNN Senior Producer

Las Vegas Boulevard, aka the Strip, is known for its glitz, glamour and lure of hitting a jackpot, but a world exists underground that has become home to those down on their luck. People are living in the flood channels that run beneath the city, and some survive in elaborate shelters deep in the dark labyrinths– many of them driven here by unemployment, drugs, alcohol and mental illness.

Hundreds of homeless are living within the more than 300 miles of underground flood channels, according to Matthew O’Brien, author of “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas.” He says as many as 10 people live in one tunnel near the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” neon sign.

It is the desert, so the storm drains are dry most of the year. But when it does rain heavily, those underground must flee and watch their belongings wash away. Flooding, fires and disease are just some of the dangers.

O’Brien served as our tour guide through four different tunnels around Las Vegas, armed with a black metal flashlight and donning a black-knit cap, boots and long-sleeve black shirt. Above ground, one would think he was a cat burglar or mercenary.

Every tunnel is different – ceilings can range anywhere from four to 12 feet high. Some of the concrete floors are covered with dust, others mud, and – in one section – a foot of stagnant water.

What’s creepy is that some tunnels have small openings to access parallel storm drains, none of which would be visible without pointing a flashlight consistently along the concrete walls. It is pitch black down here. O’Brien admits that a rumor of a crowbar-armed troll living in the tunnels still haunts him a bit.

“A lot of the people that I talk to down here have their own ghost stories about a friend who was murdered in the tunnels or someone who drowned and they hear their voices late at night,” O’Brien says. “It is true that you do hear some weird noises down here because of the acoustics.”

Upon hearing our footsteps, some vagrants scatter from their makeshift shelters not knowing if we are marauders or even police who sometimes come through to chase the homeless out of the channels.

We find sleeping bags and mattresses, but they seem outnumbered by the trash, food scraps, cockroaches and graffiti inside the various tunnels.
But then O’Brien introduces us to 43-year-old Steve Dommer who has created an elaborate living area under the casino-lined boulevard.

Dommer, a self-described Las Vegas native, says he ended up underground due to drugs—speed and heroin to be exact. He says drug use not only caused him to lose his construction job but also created what he describes as a “legal situation.” Dommer says he’s been sober since January.

Two years ago, Dommer created a home about a half-mile from the entrance of a flood channel where some daylight enters through a sealed grate overhead near the Strip. He has a living room, bedroom, kitchen and workshop encompassing about 400-square feet. Everything is elevated inches off of the floor with wooden pallets or milk crates because water from construction hoses above covers the ground. He even painted some of his living area to hide the black soot that covers the walls and ceilings as a result of a fire caused by a one-time tunnel neighbor.

The living room area includes a rocking chair, a club chair, a table to display knick-knacks and a shelf with games like Scrabble. The adjacent washroom has a cabinet with standard toiletries, like shampoo and deodorant, and a broken chunk of mirror to shave by. Dommer also developed a make-shift shower: a plastic water container with a spigot secured by a rope that empties into a bucket.

The kitchen contains a Sterno burner for making morning coffee, shelves with dishes and a baker’s rack with tins and spices.

The bedroom houses Dommer’s prized possession: a queen-size bed. He says he found it next to a dumpster at an apartment complex near the Palms Casino Resort. He says he checked to make sure it was not “saturated or bug-infested” before hauling it all the way down to his place with the help of friends.

“I like to be able to come back and sleep as comfortably as possible,” Dommer says patting his bed. “It’s very comforting to know that I have this bed waiting for me.”

It is all an attempt to create some normalcy in his bizarre shelter in the bowels of the flood channel system.

Dommer says he does want to transport his life back above ground, and he’s getting help from “Shine A Light,” a foundation created by freelance writer O’Brien and HELP of Southern Nevada, a charitable outreach organization. The group is working with Dommer to try to clear up his so-called “legal situation.”

As part of “Shine A Light,” O’Brien escorts social workers into the storm drains twice a month to offer assistance to the homeless, providing blankets, food, water and counseling. O’Brien says more than a dozen people who were living within the tunnels have received housing in the past six months thanks to the partnership. But O’Brien says he thinks the city could do much more to help.

“I’ve always thought more should be done. I just think the history of Vegas p.r. is to ignore the bad issues,” O’Brien tells us, explaining that’s one reason he wrote the book about the tunnels. “I think the instinct of the city and the county is to ignore stuff that can be construed as negative press.”

Dommer says it’s simply a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Check out this photo gallery of the tunnels here.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Economy • Michael Cary
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Elizabeth

    It is Very sad to see this happening in The United States of AMERICA!
    It is not only the mentally Ill society that is homeless. I would like to see stories come from each and every state! The results would be staggering. Our Government should be ashamed. This is happening to people from all walks of life. We need change Right here in America and we need it now!

    October 6, 2009 at 6:35 pm |
  2. Anna

    Healthcare, now ! Socialism, now !

    October 6, 2009 at 6:04 pm |
  3. Cartavious Lockhart

    It’s sad that people are living underground in Las Vegas. I don’t know how they survive in the underground flood channels. These people living underground are putting there lives in danger staying in these tunnels. The foundation “Shine A Light” is doing a good thing helping the homeless. Some other organizations or the government should also help with the situation.

    October 6, 2009 at 4:58 pm |
  4. Anthony

    When we do nothing to curb the intake of untrained and poorly motivated immigrant workers how can we even dream of maintaining any level of support for the working class?

    It's easy to blame the reigning political regimes or an entrenched business class for these problems, but the ultimate villain here is the flood of workers from south of the border who have systematically lowered the base level of compensation by flooding our markets.

    Perhaps we can bring the blame back another layer as well. Can we really blame the working poor who come to the U.S. looking for a better life? Or should we be concentrating on the rich and powerful in Mexico, who have done nothing to better the lives of their countrymen and instead fill their pockets with drug money or ignore the problems all around them.

    October 6, 2009 at 4:42 pm |
  5. Lampe

    Don't worry Obama is going to raise everyone's taxes. Then we will see what happens with poor people then!

    October 6, 2009 at 4:23 pm |
  6. Tim Gibson

    The is the quickly growing landscape of the US that the leadership does not want us to see, the realites behind the pretty little image they attempt to paint.

    Regardless of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the congress and the crows within waiting to scavenge like the carpet baggers of days long past, we are in a fall, a decline, and Obama stands on the side lines with his hands in his pockets, waiting for the next flash of the camera. Perhaps he thought he was getting a part in a reality show and would win an oscar, who knows at this point. But so far, not a single mark on the credit side of his books to date.

    Can anyone say failure, fraud, deceit.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:29 pm |
  7. Mari

    During the Bush Regime the poverty rate grew by 12.4%.

    For the first time since the Great Depression, the income of working-class & middle-class Americans dropped by 1500 dollars.

    Bush gave a big old tax break to the wealthiest 1%, and no....... it did not trickle down to the rest of the nation.

    And this is the wealthiest nation on Earth!

    October 6, 2009 at 3:19 pm |
  8. Tammy, Houma, LA

    While this is a sad reality in our nation, it is, unfortunately, a reality. The mentally ill are so often overlooked and ignored in our society. I cannot imagine those who deal with this and have no family or loved ones to help them. My uncle has schizophrenia (he was diagnosed in his 20's before I was born, and I wish I had known the genius my mom said her older brother was before this disease struck him). What I do know is that he will never go homeless because I will always see to his care-not out of obligation, but love. How do we as a nation sit and allow our most vulnerable to live in underground tunnels and parks? How do we not care for them? How can we live with ourselves as we ignore them on our daily commutes and let it happen? It says much about us. And none of it is all that good.

    October 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm |
  9. Zoe

    Only in America. Underground cities like Singapore where the mass rapid transit system connects malls n buildings have used space efficiently due to the lack of land. Testimony of how resourceful government gets when wastage and decay isn't an option.

    October 6, 2009 at 1:49 pm |
  10. Cindy

    It's a shame that in this great nation that we live in that people have to resort to living in tunnels to survive. I just can not believe that. It's really crazy and so sad! I'm looking forward to seeing this report by Gary for sure!!


    October 6, 2009 at 1:01 pm |
  11. alex lyrics

    The haves and the have nots.

    The ratio is far too wide a gap.

    October 6, 2009 at 12:27 pm |