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Dream seekers find grim odds in Las Vegas

Lure of easy money, fame and fun proves a mirage for many

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LAS VEGAS — Nightfall comes to the dingy street corner, and the flickering lights of the 7-Eleven keep watch over a prayer group trying to bring the divine to a carnal city.

Jon Philips, drunk for 45 days, wanders up and staggers into their prayer circle. He drops to his knees, and the men and women of the Christian Motorcyclist Association encircle him, their Harleys parked nearby.

"Bring us a brighter day," someone prays.

The man's story — a gambler and a drunk who can't bring himself to leave Las Vegas — is one of many in a city that sells fantasies of easy money and 24-hour fun. Beyond all the neon and glitz lies their more desperate reality.

"This is the hardest town in America to live in," says Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "There's no net to catch you."

Gambling addiction programs are few, and lines are long at the city's missions. The homeless population has nearly doubled to 12,000 since 1999.

For many, Las Vegas is the American dream — affordable housing, no state income tax and well-paying jobs that don't require much education. Only three states have fewer college graduates, but the average household income of $42,177 is the 19th highest in the nation.

Valet car attendants can easily bring in $50,000; card dealers on the Strip can make much more.

Those odds bring people to the gambling city in droves. From 1990 to 2000, the area's population ballooned 62 percent, the largest for any U.S. metropolitan area. Today, 1.3 million people live in southern Nevada.

To tourists, Las Vegas is a glamorous getaway of pricey restaurants, expensive shows and fancy megaresorts and casinos.

But the glittering city of dreams also attracts the desperate, people who couldn't make it anywhere else and come here as a last resort. Many are troubled, unrealistic with more dreams than skills.

Mike Jamison is among them.

Inside a hot, sweaty gym miles from the neon lights, Jamison trains for his next boxing match. He's in poor shape and isn't prepared, but he's been promised $1,000 if he fights in a small venue at an off-Strip casino.

Nobody's ever heard of the 24-year-old, but he believes he can be a champion. He came here a year ago from Memphis, Tenn., a high school dropout whose only dream was to become a boxer.

"Everybody wants to come to Las Vegas where they think they can make it," says former referee Richard Steele, who manages the Nevada Partners gym where Jamison trains. "If you don't have the talent, you never gonna make it. Just coming to Las Vegas isn't good enough."

Jamison says his relatives in Memphis envision him making lots of money and living an extraordinary life. But he has no car, skips meals and prays for his next $1,000 fight.

"Vegas can break you or make you," he says, stepping into the practice ring.

A few miles away, a stripper known as "Jackie" starts her shift at Larry's Villa, a smoky, drab place most tourists never find. Locals feed quarters into video poker machines, some hardly glancing up as the girls twirl around metal poles.

"I'm so tired of this job, watching them gawk at you and not tipping," said the 32-year-old single mother of two, who asked that her real name not be used. She dances six days a week and cleans houses to make ends meet.

Dancers in the well-known strip clubs can make $1,000 or more on a good night. But at places like Larry's Villa, a good night might be $300, and even that is rare.

When the money gets too tight, Jackie goes without food so her children can eat. Her salary also has to help her mother, who has cancer and a gambling habit.

"I live day to day," she says, popping on stage.

After five years, she's still looking for the big payday.

"Las Vegas is built on illusion and dreams," says Barbara Brents, a UNLV sociologist. "Its whole goal to tourists is to sell fantasy. In some ways, that spills over into people who see it as a place where they can fulfill things that they couldn't do elsewhere."

That's what Jamison thought.

He lost the fight he wasn't prepared for — a technical knockout in the second round. A week later, the $1,000 was almost gone.

"Vegas, I'm hating it," he says. "I can't live fight-to-fight anymore."

On the east end of Fremont Street, past the light show that beckons tourists each night, the motorcyclists in their leathers are handing out religious material — hoping to save someone from the perils of the city.

Philips, 39, says he just can't leave Las Vegas. He's tried 12 times in 28 years, but he's always lured back by the nonstop gambling and drinking. His brother wires him $20 every other day; Philips doesn't tell him he gambles most of it away.

He will wander the downtown streets again tonight, counting change to buy a beer, waiting for his next money transfer and praying with a group of strangers.

"I got a heartache that's going to last for the rest of my life," he says, a tear slipping down his cheek.

The prayer ends, the circle of bikers breaks up, and Las Vegas begins another 24 hours.