las vegas tunnels

CrowdRise/YouTube

‘We always make sure to give them the stuff that they need, give them a voice to speak for themselves.’

A gambler rolls a pair of dice. A cocktail waitress sets down an Old Fashioned. A drunk bachelorette trips on the sidewalk. While all of these things happen every day on the Las Vegas Strip, a community of homeless flood-channel-dwellers lives beneath those streets—and Matt O’Brien is trying to help them through an ambitious crowdfunding project.

The writer and University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor first came across the flood channels after reading a local crime story. “I read about a murderer who used the underground flood channels to evade the police. It was written about in the morning paper after he was finally captured,” he told the Daily Dot via phone from Las Vegas. “That’s what gave me the idea to follow his trail down there to see what he experienced and what he encountered in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.”

He hoped to find some trace of the murderer: a bloody palm print, a footprint in the mud. Instead, he found hundreds of strangers who would soon become his friends.

“We were both a little bit wary of each other,” O’Brien said of his first encounter with the people living below ground. He said that they could have suspected that he was a cop, someone working for the county, or another criminal on the run. “Once we got past those initial barriers, I was really able to have some long conversations about their lives, about being homeless, about Las Vegas, and about how they discovered these tunnels and why they would want to live there as opposed to somewhere above ground.”

In a city like Las Vegas, where summer temperatures soar well above 100 degrees, it makes sense for homeless people to seek refuge out of the sun. O’Brien said that the tunnels are typically 25 to 30 degrees cooler than aboveground, and with only four or five big rain days per year, the flood channels stay relatively cool and dry.

“Vegas has a history of criminalizing homelessness, so down in the tunnels you’re out of sight, out out of mind,” O’Brien said. “You’re not really bothered by a business owner or a cop. You have your privacy to do what you what. There’s a sense of permanence that you don’t get with an above ground camp.”

It is this permanence that has allowed O’Brien to get to know so many of the tunnel residents over the past decade or so. He estimated that about a quarter of the contacts in his phone are people he knows through his work there, as well as through his organization Shine a Light.

What began as one man’s curiosity about some tunnels has turned into a large community effort. Shine a Light has connected the people in the tunnels with larger, better-funded organizations to help them with housing and employment.

Despite these strong community ties, there’s always more to be done: That’s why Shine a Light partnered with crowdfunding platform CrowdRise for a 24-Hour Impact project to raise quick funds for the flood channel community. These projects are meant to address immediate concerns, and O’Brien and co. will be doing just that by purchasing basic goods for the homeless men and women.

“It’s a lot more than giving out socks and underwear. We’re trying to connect them with a way to get out of the tunnels,” O’Brien said, referring to Shine a Light’s efforts to connect people with opportunities.

One man, Billy, is a veteran living in the flood channels. In the video above, he explains what he really hopes to get out of the fundraiser. “I want a job,” he says. “Get me a job. Fundraise me a job.”

In an effort to grant this wish, O’Brien has arranged for Billy to see a local dentist at a reduced rate to get dentures. He want to help him “get his smile back” and make him more presentable to potential employers.

The project has raised more than $14,000 exceeding its original $10,000 goal. Donations will go toward supplies and larger efforts, like the one for Billy. And O’Brien and his organization will continue their work—giving a voice and a face to a largely voiceless and faceless community.

“We always make sure to give them the stuff that they need, give them a voice to speak for themselves,” O’Brien says. “The vast majority of people down there appreciate the attention and having a voice. And more so, the change that it’s brought about.”

Screengrab via CrowdRise/YouTube

Marisa Kabas

Marisa Kabas

Marisa Kabas is a lifestyle reporter and activist. Her work has been published by Fusion, Fast Company, and Today. She’s also served as an editorial campaigns director for Purpose PBC, a social movement incubator.