October 9th, 2009
07:54 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 (4 Responses)
  1. Michelle R.

    It is sad. You would hope that we would take better care of our own. It is a plus that someone took the initiative to investigate the matter and get some help for the people.

    The living conditions are so dire I'm sure Las Vegas wants to keep this on the D.L. Definitely not helpful advertising for Sin City.

    October 10, 2009 at 11:31 am |
  2. Maria Tete

    I was impressed by the images. Really impressed. I grew up in Latin America. I've seen this picture before. Do not let pass that situation behind the table. it is important to keep track on that immediately.

    Please use the media exposure to encourage attention on the issue. We have to take care of those who are left behind and avoid this problem get ting worst, and worst and then incontrollable.

    We all, as human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

    October 9, 2009 at 11:16 pm |
  3. Mari

    To Cindy, my conservative friend. I agree with 100%. Peace.

    October 9, 2009 at 7:12 pm |
  4. Cindy

    It’s extremely sad that people have to resort to living this way!! You would think that we would take care of our people better than this. Looking forward to seeing more on this.


    October 9, 2009 at 7:06 pm |

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