The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (2023)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (1)


A dark parallel world exists beneath the luxury hotels and casinos of Las Vegas: An estimated 1,500 homeless people live in an extensive labyrinth of tunnels. A visit to the dark side of Las Vegas.

David Signer (text), Jonas Kakò (images), Las Vegas


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Between the five-star hotels Caesars Palace and the Rio lies a wasteland divided by a railroad track. It is a place where homeless people, addicts and drug dealers gather. The contrast to the glitzy Las Vegas right next door could not be greater. As we approach, a man crawls out of a tent under the bridge and limps toward us. He thinks we are crystal meth dealers. When he realizes his mistake, he asks if we could at least help him find the drug somewhere.

Big T. has been living in the dark for 12 years

On the other side of the empty, sandy area is an entrance to several tunnels. They are flood control tunnels. Since it only rains on a few days a year, they are usually dry. Their network covers hundreds of kilometers, and many are inhabited. About 1,500 people live in this dark world below the casino metropolis, the lights of which never go out.

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (2)

It is evening. There are bicycles scattered in front of the entrance. Again and again, people come out of the tunnels, holding their hands over their eyes because the bright neon light from the Rio hotel blinds them. Others go in, with flashlights, some by bicycle, some with a dog.

A man who seems to be about 70 years old is adjusting the saddle on a bicycle. He calls himself Big T. It turns out later that he is only 45. When asked where he lives, he says: «Everywhere, like a cat.» And when asked what brought him here: «My mother. She was a prostitute.» He tells us that his father was a gangster. Apparently, Big T. tried to emulate him and stole a lot of money from the Hilton hotel. «This is what’s left,» he says, turning his empty pant pockets inside out.

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (3)

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Top: Big T. helps a friend fix his bike. Bottom left: A tunnel near the Rio hotel, not far from the Las Vegas Strip. Bottom right: Big T. has been living in the tunnels for several years.

Big T. has lived in one of the tunnels here for 12 years, a good kilometer and a half deep inside. He talks about his girlfriend who died a year and a half ago. He pulls out a magnifying glass and a chunky carved heart made of soapstone and begins to sob.

The police regularly clear the «apartments»

Because forecasts have predicted rain on this day, many of the residents have brought their belongings to the entrance as a precaution. The water can flood the tunnels within minutes, and people have drowned multiple times. When asked about the threat of rain, Big T. says: «So it may fall.» The conversation is repeatedly interrupted when one of the long freight trains rattles past outside.

Zack, who is 24 years old, is lying in the gravel with his girlfriend. «You didn’t happen to bring socks, did you?» he asks. He speaks slowly, his eyes half closed – he is probably on heroin. Zack says he lost his job and then his apartment during the pandemic. His girlfriend, who is rummaging through her bag the whole time, does not respond to questions. Zack complains about the frequent police raids. «Whenever a crime happens somewhere, the police come here. Just because we have dusty pants.» Sometimes they then clear out all of the tunnels and dispose of everything, he says. «It’s like they just invade your apartment and destroy everything.»

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (6)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (7)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (8)

Top: Zack and his girlfriend have only been living in the tunnels for a short time. Bottom left: Zack lost his job and home during the pandemic. Bottom right: an inhabited tunnel near the highway.

Homeless people are ubiquitous in the United States. They can be seen in all larger and smaller cities – in tents, entryways, under bridges and underpasses, or in tunnels like in Las Vegas. Statistics estimate their total number to be about 550,000, but there are also surveys according to which there are 2.5 million homeless children and youth in the country. Most research suggests that the number has increased in recent years as a result of the opioid crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

Rod Stewart grins at tunnel dwellers

There are five tunnel entrances near the Rio hotel. Each of them is managed by a different person. No one may enter without their consent. The walls are soot-blackened from the fires on which the residents cook. «Meth – fucking madness» is written on one of the walls.

One of these bosses calls himself «Captain» and is willing to show us his tunnel. He has lived here since 2015 – «since I got out of prison,» he says. The tunnel leads up to the famous Caesars hotel. There, a shaft provides a view of the facade. Rod Stewart, who is performing there at the moment, grins down from a giant billboard. Water has collected at the bottom. According to Captain, it is sewage from the hotel. «Don’t touch,» he warns. He recently got a severe infection on his hands and feet here, and his fingertips are still covered with a kind of white mold. He explains that this is why good shoes and socks are some of the most important things in the tunnels.

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (9)

(Video) Homeless Lady of the Night Living in the Tunnels of Las Vegas | INTERVIEW

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (10)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (11)

Top: Captain below the Caesars Palace hotel. He is the gatekeeper of one of the tunnels, where he lives with several roommates. No outsider may enter without his permission. Below: flooded tunnels near the Rio hotel, not far from the Strip.

His sleeping area is equipped with a car battery. He tells us that he cannot hear rushing water so deep in the tunnel in time to get out, so he has to rely on the guard at the entrance, who also warns the residents with a special whistle when the police arrive. This job is always held by newcomers. On the way out, a rat darts between our feet. George, Captain says, as if introducing us to a roommate.

Clean after 60 relapses

Robert Banghart works as an outreach director for Shine a Light, an organization that helps residents of the tunnels. The 46-year-old was homeless himself for five years, and lived down there for half of that time. He had been addicted to heroin and cystal meth since he was a teenager. Four years ago, three men tried to kill him. When they thought he was dead, they left him lying next to the tracks. A worker who happened to be passing by called an ambulance. «I had a knife stuck in my leg,» Banghart says. «A hatchet had hit me in the head three times. A blow with a pipe shattered my jaw. My liver was shredded.»

For days he hovered between life and death. When he was able to get back up, he went through rehab. «I’ve been clean ever since – except for about 60 relapses,» Banghart says.

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (12)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (13)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (14)

Top: Robert Banghart lived in the tunnels under Las Vegas for years. Today, he is an outreach manager at the organization Shine a Light and regularly visits the homeless. Bottom left: Banghart had been addicted to drugs since his youth. Today he is more or less clean. Bottom right: Belongings of a tunnel dweller.

According to him, life in the tunnels is archaic, like in the novel «Lord of the Flies.» People see themselves as belonging to a kind of brotherhood or tribe and thus believe themselves to be deceptively safe, he tells us. In reality, however, one is always threatened by violence: «Life down there is as hard as it is in the Navy Seals.» The heat alone, often reaching over 40 degrees Celsius, is torture without fans or air conditioning, he says.

«You don’t realize how you’re slowly descending»

«No one expects to be homeless one day,» Banghart explains. «I, too, sat in front of the Christmas tree as a child and unwrapped Christmas presents.» But his start was difficult. His father was an alcoholic, beat his mother and died early. «For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been kind of uncomfortable.» At 17, he was sent to prison. «The descent is slow,» he says. «You don’t notice because you get used to each lower level. When I was released, I slept on the couch at friends’ places, then in shelters, eventually I ended up in the tunnels.»

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (15)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (16)

(Video) Recovering Drug Addicts Reveal the Truth About Living in Vegas’ Underground Tunnels

For Banghart, the move was a relief: «It was like having your own place.» He lived in the dark interior of the labyrinth, the police never came that far, he felt safe. At the Salvation Army, he got free meals, and he stole money for drugs – «even though I wasn’t particularly skilled.» Like most, he had a bicycle, «the tunnel dwellers’ car,» as he calls it. During the day he stayed in the tunnels where it was less hot, and went out only at night. Banghart barely saw the daylight, nor did he have access to a shower. At some point, the card with his Social Security number on it was stolen from him. From then on, it was almost impossible to get a job. «It’s difficult to escape homelessness.»

The worst part is the feeling of being lost

What was the worst thing? «The feeling of being lost. I had no watch and no sense of time,» Banghart says. «Sometimes I would wake up somewhere and not know where I was. Everything was unpredictable and random. Suddenly a gang appeared and attacked me, no idea why or who they were. Everything was unraveling, compounded by the drugs. There was no reason, no clues, everything was lost in a fog of oblivion. Life consisted of occasional eating and getting high.»

Banghart explains that he has almost no photos from that time and that he can only look at them with difficulty. Instead, he has about 10,000 pictures on his cellphone taken in the last four years, because he enjoys and wants to capture every moment.

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (17)

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (18)

Returning to normal life was like coming back from a war, Banghart says. «It took me a month to get used to sleeping in a bed. I had to learn to pay bills and take out the trash.»

Now he is trying to help the people in the tunnels. «Last month, two died, but we were able to motivate five to go to rehab.» It is important not to exert too much pressure, he says. «I drop by regularly, leave my number and tell them they can call me when they’re ready. Most of them never get in touch. But every conversation is like a seed. Maybe one day it will bloom.»

An abysmal picnic trip

Not far from the hotel Rio is a single, shorter tunnel. Light falls in from both sides, and in the center is a neatly made bed on which Joe and Renée have made themselves comfortable. This is the villa district of the tunnel dwellers, so to speak. «Take a seat,» the two say, pointing to two folding chairs. «Would you like a beer?» There is a cooler against the concrete wall. The two are in their fifties, but cuddle up to each other like newlyweds.

The misery of the homeless in Las Vegas living in tunnels (19)

Top: Joe and his girlfriend Renée have lived in the tunnels for several years. Bottom left: Joe smoking meth. Bottom right: a tunnel entrance near the Strip.

Joe had traveled the world as a roadie. But when his father died a few years ago, he started to question life on the hamster wheel, he says. Now he enjoys doing nothing here. In a year, he will receive retirement benefits, he tells us, and then he will go back to San Diego and find a beach house. He compares the stay here in the tunnel to a temporary camping trip. Renée is visually impaired, and Joe jokes that this explains why she is with him. When she goes out to «organize» some steaks at dusk, Joe invites us to a barbecue.

The idyll he has painted starts to crack during the conversation as he lights a crystal meth pipe and speaks of envy among the homeless. He tells us that he can never keep cash anywhere – that could be life-threatening at night. Later, a man shows up, perhaps a dealer, perhaps a customer, and Joe barks that he doesn’t want to see him.

He mentions that now many drugs, even marijuana, are being mixed with the opioid fentanyl, which is highly addictive and can easily lead to death from overdose. Increasingly depressed, Joe talks about how he used to be a drummer and wanted to be famous, but as a homeless man he no longer has a chance of getting hired. «Everyone here has their demons,» he says.

He says goodbye with the words: «Next year on the Pacific, in a hammock!» But it is clear that he no longer believes that himself.

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