Beneath the glitz and glamour of what is arguably the most expensive real estate in the world, beneath the playground of the high-rolling mega-rich gamblers who fly in for the weekend in their private jets, beneath the neon lights and polished marble of the casinos, beneath the city that never sleeps, is a world that is known to only the handful of America’s forgotten—its homeless.
Despite being located in the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas, because of its physical geography and being surrounded by mountains, is prone to occasional very heavy rainfall and flash flooding. To counter the effects of this flooding, there is a labyrinth of over three hundred miles of storm sewers beneath the streets of Sin City. And this underground maze has become home to hundreds of Nevada’s less fortunate—the dispossessed, the marginalized, the mentally-ill and those who have simply fallen on hard times. They are young and old, male and female, able-bodied and disabled. There are single people, there are couples, and there are entire families.
When the evening sun goes down, many of Las Vegas’ mole people will venture to the surface and mingle with those who have come to pay homage to the neon gods. They beg at street corners, panhandle, dumpster dive and scour the back alleys. And when the rest of Nevada’s denizens and Las Vegas’ day-trippers have called it a night, they return to their dank subterranean sanctuary.
The day-to-day existence of the sewer dwellers is fraught with dangers. If they’re lucky enough to avoid the muggings and the occasional murder, they have to contend with the ever-presence of disease and lack of hygiene, the rats and the scorpions, and the loss of the little dignity that they once had. But perhaps the greatest danger is the constant threat of the reason why the tunnels are there at all—flash floods. Drownings are not uncommon, and destruction of their meagre possessions is almost guaranteed.
None of those who live beneath the streets are there by choice. They are there by circumstance. The contrast between the haves and the have nots in America is stark, and it should be an embarrassment to a nation that has always prided itself as the greatest country on Earth, a nation that has always welcomed with open arms the less-fortunate of other lands, a nation with an economy big enough to finance the exploration of space and the most powerful military complex in history, but not big enough, it seems, to take care of its own.
A short video by photojournalist Matthew O’Brien says more than this essay could ever say.
The underground maze of Las Vegas’ storm sewers has become home to hundreds of Nevada’s less fortunate – the dispossessed, the marginalized, the mentally-ill and those who have simply fallen on hard times.
Photo: Brian Vander Brug
None of those who live beneath the streets are there by choice. They are there by circumstance.