LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - Beneath the city of Las Vegas, famous for its of dazzling lights and high rollers, are underground drainage tunnels built to prevent flooding in the city, but they are now home to hundreds of homeless people.
Not too far from the Las Vegas Strip, is one drainage tunnel which has become home to about 30 homeless people.
Among them is Chris, who didn't want to be interviewed but agreed to be filmed. He lives in the tunnel's entrance and has taken on the role of “guard”. He alerts his neighbors to the arrival of visitors.
Deeper into the tunnel, the surroundings change. There’s carpet on the floor, electricity; art on the walls.
Some of the inhabitants of this little underground city agreed to talk about the place they call home.
"I don’t mind the tunnel, it’s like free rent, the only thing we are missing is running water," says Robert, a tunnel resident. "We even get sunlight sometimes if we go outside. The tunnels are not the bad part. Las Vegas is the bad part. I hate this place, but it’s 24 hours, it is so convenient."
Another resident tells VOA, "I do all the cooking. I do laundry."
"We are definitely a family, which is good, and not good because it makes you comfortable," the woman says. "The last thing you want to do when you are homeless is to become comfortable. Because you stay there. It’s easy to stay there. I don’t want to stay here."
The tunnel has rules and if you don’t follow them you will be asked to leave. Among the rules, keep clean and respect others.
"We take pride that we don’t steal from each other," says tunnel resident Craig, who is called the mayor.
He’s lived here for seven years, making a living by selling lost golf balls picked up at a neighborhood club. He is the only tunnel resident who gets payments from social security, about $800 a month, which he used to gamble away in the casinos but says he no longer does.
The underground inhabitants all have similar stories. Living on the streets, drug abuse. Paul used to live underground but managed to get out.
“I chose to stay high instead of change my life for a long time" Paul says, "until that day came when I decided to switch the importance and choose that living life was more important than getting high I wasn’t able to do anything. But the day I made that decision, everything just unfolded.”
Today, Paul is part of the non-profit “Shine the Light” group and regularly returns to the tunnel to bring food and clothing to his friends. The organization offers free rehab to those ready to give up their drug addiction. Paul says many are just not ready.
"They’ve learned how to exist in a flood channel under Las Vegas," he says, "and have everything they need except running water, which I wouldn’t put past them to figure out how to do that."
So Paul continues to try to convince them — that there really is light at the end of the tunnel — encouraging them to make the transition out of this underground life.