Mention Las Vegas to most people, and they think about entertainment, gambling, and luxury. It wouldn’t be a surprise to say that Las Vegas is the biggest playground for adults in the United States (and maybe in the world).
But there’s more to Vegas than casinos, gambling, and luxury casinos. The reality is that Las Vegas is also home to thousands of homeless people, many of whom live in the tunnels underneath the Las Vegas Strip. They take refuge in the storm drainage systems, away from the glitz and the glamour the Sin City is known for.
Who are the residents of the Las Vegas tunnels? Where did these tunnels come from? And how do people wind up there?
The Tunnels Beneath Las Vegas
Most people don’t know this, but underneath the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip are 200 miles of flood tunnels. It’s a modern-day maze missing only a minotaur at its center.
And over 1,000 people live in these tunnels along with the spiders and other underground denizens.
The Hyrdo Conduit Corporation built more tunnels in the 1990s to drain water from storms to prevent flash flooding on the Strip and elsewhere in the city. The tunnels aren’t patrolled by law enforcement, making it an ideal place for the homeless to live, although they run the risk of losing all their belongings when storms cause water to go rushing through the tunnels.
The original plan was to have 1,000 miles of tunnels by now, but they weren’t finished according to the master plan. Still, there are 450 miles of drainage in Vegas, and 300 miles of those are underground tunnels.
The tunnels stay dry most of the time because of the lack of rain. It is Vegas, after all, which is in the middle of a desert. When it does rain, the water can get pretty high pretty fast in the tunnels, making them a less-than-ideal spot to be in during such an event.
And even when it’s 110 degrees on the Las Vegas Strip, life in the tunnels is cool, damp, and dark.
The Tunnels Are a Fascinating Mess
If you were to visit the tunnels beneath Vegas, you might have trouble keeping your feet dry. Keep this in mind if you’re planning to check it out, and dress accordingly. (Galoshes, I’m thinking.)
The tunnels aren’t just home to the homeless in Vegas. They’re also home to graffiti artists. It doesn’t matter where you look in these tunnels, you’ll see graffiti.
Everyone in town, except for the occasional journalist or writer, ignores the tunnels and the people living there. This includes the casinos, the cops, and the local politicians.
The Tale of Timmy “TJ” Weber
The Vegas tunnels first achieved a degree of infamy in 2002. That’s the year that Timmy “TJ” Weber killed his girlfriend and her son, then hid in the tunnels to escape the police.
On April 4th, 2002, Timmy Weber killed both his girlfriend and one of her teenage sons. The police found his girlfriend’s body upside down, stuffed into a storage container in the bedroom closet. Her head was covered with a plastic bag and duct tape.
The police found her son facedown on a mattress. Weber had taped the teen’s arms behind his back. He then stuffed a t-shirt into his mouth, and the teen died of asphyxiation.
Like many criminals, Weber left town but returned. He attacked the surviving son and another adult friend when they returned to their family home near Downtown Las Vegas to collect memorabilia for the funerals.
Weber then escaped on foot, climbing a barbwire fence before escaping into a storm drain. He spent over three weeks on the lam. He claims that running through the storm sewers beneath for five hours made him feel like he was in The Fugitive.
Weber was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003. For the purposes of this post, he’s the reason that people know anything at all about the tunnels underneath Vegas.
Most of the Tunnel Residents Aren’t Like TJ
I read one account of a resident of the tunnels named John. He moved to Vegas after leaving his wife and kids. He wanted to enjoy the famous Vegas lifestyle.
He didn’t meet with much success, though, and he did some manual labor at the Mandalay Bay. He was only able to find part-time work doing odd jobs, and he wasn’t making enough money to maintain what most people would consider a normal residence.
From the account I read, he was used to the occasional flash floods which would wash away his and the other residents’ belongings. You can prevent that by keeping your belongings at the end of the tunnel, but you must be ready to act fast to move your stuff before it gets washed away.
Many people who are homeless and living in the tunnels beneath Las Vegas suffer from mental illness, and where there’s mental illness, there’s almost always substance abuse, too. But anyone can turn adverse circumstances into a home.
You can read stories about the generosity that some of these people show complete strangers. Sharing food with others isn’t unusual in this situation.
I’m always amazed that people who have so little are sometimes the most eager to give what they have to help others.
They Have Access to HELP
I’ve read stories about some addicts and alcoholics getting interventions on shows like Dr. Phil, but the average person living in the tunnels beneath Vegas doesn’t have this opportunity.
This doesn’t mean help is unavailable. One organization that offers assistance to the people in the direst straits here is called HELP. The organization can help people who want housing and free counseling for their addiction and other health issues.
HELP has assisted people and helped them leave their lives in the tunnels behind. If you met them working at a retail establishment, you might never guess that at some point in their past that they were living in drainage tunnels.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s some kind of permanent underclass that fosters this “lifestyle.” I read an account of one underground dweller who had been a Marine and a police officer, but when he got divorced and lost his job at the same time, he wound up homeless.
This person had trouble finding work because of the long gap in his work history, but HELP was able to help him get counseling and eventually find work.
Don’t Think It’s Safe Down There
I’m not recommending our readers to try checking out these tunnels when visiting Las Vegas. Since they’re not patrolled by the police, they’re ridden with crime.
I read an interview with one woman who’d lived in the tunnels for over five years who said that it was the “third most dangerous place in the country.” She claims to have heard about murders and to have actually witnessed someone getting their fingers cut off.
And even though the people living here try to make it as comfortable as possible, there’s still no access to toilets or showers. Also, it’s so dark that the only light comes from flashlights.
Some of the tunnel dwellers don’t even know if it’s morning or evening because of the constant darkness down here. In that respect, the tunnels resemble the casinos above, where the gamblers lose track of time, too.
When I saw a headline talking about tunnels beneath Las Vegas where people lived, I thought it was a conspiracy theory or an urban legend. The tunnels beneath Las Vegas are real, though, and so are the people living there.