Las Vegas evokes images of flickering lights, ostentatious hotels, buzzing casinos, extravaganzas, fancy cars and many Elvis impersonators eager to facilitate a matrimonial ceremony in small chapels.
What lies beneath The Strip is anything but glitz and glamour. In fact, it is another world existing of tunnels (designed to avoid flooding), repurposed by homeless people and calling it Home.
In April 2002, TJ Weber went on a crime spree, killing his girlfriend and her son, and raping her teenage daughter. After leaving town he returned to the scene of the crime, as criminals often do, to beat up her surviving son. He went into hiding and lived beneath the streets of Vegas. It was not until the was captured by the police, that the mere existence of these homeless people was discovered.
The tunnel dwellers are not criminals, not by any means. They are merely people like you and me, that fell on hard times and hit rock bottom. Homelessness is not necessarily caused by unemployment or substance abuse. Typically, a bigger problem could exist, such as mental illness, trauma, or post-traumatic stress. Substance abuse is often a coping mechanism for these challenges.
But who are these people then?
Homelessness is not a choice – it is a last resort: An instinct to survive, hoping every day that today will be your last day on the streets. Some of these people are war veterans, shunned by the very country they fought for. They are also people who lost their jobs, cold-shouldered by their families. They are people affected by the drug and alcohol abuse of loved ones.
However, not all the tunnel dwellers are unemployed. Some earn very little money, not nearly enough to live on – and being so close to temptation, they do what a lot of people do – they gamble, hoping that today is their lucky day. Unfortunately, that day never comes.
Image Credit: dailymail.co.uk
Designers of Living Spaces
Life in the tunnels is anything but cosy. Your living space is referred to as your “camp” and you need to consider the placement of your belongings in case of a heavy rains or floods. Due to the high risk, important documents such as passports and ID’s are carried around in a bag. Some dwellers have a shopping trolley, which holds their earthly possessions, parked next to their make-shift beds. In case they need to evacuate quickly, bedding is loaded in the trolley and rolled out of the tunnel.
Homeless ≠ Dirty
There are also unspoken rules followed by all who dwell in the tunnels.
- You may not enter someone else’s camp without asking for permission
- You may not relieve yourself or leave your trash close to anyone else’s camp
What about Shelters I hear you ask
Although there are homeless shelters in Sin City, the need is greater than establishments can handle. Other reasons are:
- Some dwellers have pets who are not welcome
- They could be married or engaged, and their partners refuse to go
- You must queue early in the day for a bed or you will be turned away anyway
- Some have a normal job or Hussle by checking slots machines for money left behind, which means they will be late for the queue
- Shelters deny access to people who consumed alcohol or drugs, which eliminates most homeless people
- Shelters are rife with contagious diseases and shoe theft is a major problem
- People have known to die due to poor ventilation in these shelters
Once a person becomes homeless, there simply isn’t enough support to get them out of those circumstances.
So how many are there then?
Due to the ephemeral nature of the population, it is almost impossible to accurately determine how many dwellers there are at any given time. However, the estimated average is between 200 – 300 depending of factors such as weather, season and life’s circumstances. Indecently, Las Vegas is the smallest American city on a list of 10 cities with the largest homeless population, ranking at 8th.
A different American Dream
People flock to Vegas to chase the ever-elusive fortune but often finds the pitfalls. I imagine that there are worse places to be homeless. At least it never gets too cold and tourist occasionally take pity on them.
“There but for the grace of God go I”