Most people visiting Las Vegas don’t know about the tunnels.
Tourists from all over the world stroll up and down the Strip, shopping and eating and gambling until morning is night and night is morning — and they leave never learning about the community of people living in the massive tunnels directly beneath their feet.
Plenty of locals have heard of the tunnels, but mentioning it to your server at a restaurant or the porter carrying your luggage still elicits mostly confused looks.
Because America’s most decadent city was built in a desert prone to occasional downpours and flash floods, Las Vegas has an elaborate maze of tunnels — hundreds of miles in total — to capture and redirect that water. There are entrances to these tunnels all over town, including next to some of the biggest, most popular casino resorts. Tunnels run under or past Caesars Palace, the Rio, the Flamingo and the Orleans. Some tunnels are only four or five feet tall, but many are cavernous: 15 feet or more from top to bottom. They’re often damp and dank, devoid entirely of light for long stretches — a sharp contrast to all the bright signs that glow around the clock aboveground.
The underground city in Las Vegas
For hundreds of people, these tunnels are home. These are America’s forgotten, those left behind in a country with an ever-growing gap between the haves and have nots.
Some are transient — temporary occupants moving in and out every few weeks. But several tunnels have become small, off-the-map communities. There’s no fresh water, and the only electricity comes from batteries, but people have still managed to piece together meager, ersatz apartments inside the industrial-sized, concrete-walled waterways. Some have lived down here for a decade or more. Each occupied tunnel has its own customs and rituals and unofficial leaders.
For those who want help leaving, there is one man who regularly descends into the tunnels. His name is Paul Vautrinot. He knows what the people down here need because the first person he helped out of the tunnels was himself.
And even for those who don’t want to leave, or are afraid to leave, to return to a terrestrial plane that was far more traumatic and harrowing than anything they see down here, Vautrinot still helps. He offers food, water, batteries, clean socks, new flashlights. His philosophy on service is simple: He will help those who need it most, and meet them where they are, judgment free. Today help might mean just surviving, but tomorrow, or a day years from now, it may mean climbing out of the darkness.
The homeless crisis in America
Every night, roughly 200,000 Americans sleep in public places because they don’t have a home. They crowd into shelters, pitch tents near I-15 in Salt Lake City, sleep under bridges in towns like Missoula, Montana, or in the doorways of office buildings in Dallas and New York City.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the growing crisis. And yet we’ve come to accept it. It’s easier to look away, to ignore the problem. In Las Vegas, these people are literally hidden from sight; they’re sleeping under our feet.
Rather than avert his eyes, or forgetting those he left behind, Vautrinot has made a habit of returning to the tunnels every few months.
Paul Vautrinot, from climbing out to helping out
Vautrinot is 34, with arm and neck tattoos peeking out from his clean polo shirt — ever-present reminders of the changes he’s made in life. Today he’s the executive director of Shine A Light, a nonprofit outreach program dedicated to helping the people who live in the tunnels. Shine A Light helps dozens of people every year with housing, drug counseling and job training.
Nearly everyone in the tunnels lives with some sort of addiction, but many have also gathered enough discarded items from above to carve out some semblance of a home. They have beds with bed frames, tables with chairs, coolers and bicycles and barbecue grills — all pulled from curbs or dumpsters. A lot of the beds and bookcases sit on homemade stilts a foot or two off the ground, because when the water comes through, it comes fast and hard, and sometimes it sweeps away everything it touches.
Of course, the tunnels can be dangerous when it’s not raining, too. There are knives and guns and irrational people down every shaft. Some sleep burrowed into the smaller concrete pipes that shoot off of the main tunnels. Some residents are hiding from the law. Some are hiding from pimps. Some from their own parents.
The Las Vegas underground tunnel culture
But among the regular inhabitants of these same tunnels, there’s also an explicit culture of sharing, a notion that they are often in this situation together. Down here, your life might depend on your neighbors.
Not many people know these tunnels better than Vautrinot. If he needs to, he can speed through this labyrinth of connecting flood channels on a bike in pitch darkness.
He knows almost every split, every turn, every camp and community.
“Call me when you’re ready,” he tells people as he hands out supplies. “We’ll come get you.”
Most people don’t call. Most people are busy getting by down here.
On a sunny day in late spring, a man who goes by the name Victory is using a wide black broom to sweep rancid water and trash out of the tunnel where he lives. He’s the de facto mayor in a set of tunnels near Caesars.
He warns the people in his tunnel not to stray too far from the entrance, because he’s seen people get swept away in the dark-water waves that course through. When you’re far enough in, you can’t hear the rain. The first sounds are usually the echoes of jumbling barrels and the clatter of random debris loosened by the surging flood. By the time you hear people screaming “Water!” it might already be too late.
“The water gets this high,” Victory says, lifting his hand to the middle of his abdomen. High enough to drown someone if they don’t wake up in time.
In a tunnel by the Flamingo, a man in his 50s named Philip is smoking a cigarette and sipping a Natural Light. Rays of sunlight coming through a nearby grate illuminate the thin line of twirling smoke from his cigarette. He thinks everyone should experience homelessness at some point. He thinks it would help everyone appreciate the value of clean water and access to electricity. The luxury of a safe bed. What you need to survive in this world.
“It would teach you everything about life,” he says.
Vautrinot’s experience in the Las Vegas tunnels
Vautrinot lived in the tunnels for three years. His story down here wasn’t all that unusual. He grew up in Las Vegas. His mother was an addict. He experimented with drugs as a teenager, then at 18, the daughter of a prominent local businessman offered him opium — and that started his journey with heroin.
A year later, he was living on the streets. He was panhandling at an In-N-Out Burger one day when a group of older guys invited him down to their tunnel. Some of them had lived there for nearly a decade. They had a fire pit, a cooler full of cold beer, a surprising amount of furniture. They gave him a thin mattress, a bed and a nightstand.
At first, his bed was closest to the entrance — the newest person’s always is — and it was his responsibility to signal back to the others when someone was approaching. (They had a special sound for police.) He learned that there were codes, mutually agreed upon rules. Break the code and you might come back one day to find your stuff has been set on fire — what constitutes an eviction notice in the tunnels.
After six months, they recruited someone new and Vautrinot moved deep into the tunnel, settling into his new life. He explored the labyrinthine maze on his bike, made friends, even had a few relationships.
Eventually he started dealing drugs out of his tunnel. He had an elaborate scheme: He’d meet buyers at different grates all over town, take the money through the bars, pass the drugs back in return, then speed back off into the darkness below.
A future for Paul Vautrinot outside the Las Vegas tunnels
But his dealing drew more people, more attention, and within a few years he’d run off all of the veterans who had taken him in. After three years down here, it all just became too much. The interpersonal drama, the running from police, the dope-sick feeling he’d get when he needed to use. When he got arrested on some outstanding warrants, he decided to enter drug court, get sober and get a regular job — at the car wash above the tunnel where he used to live.
Then Vautrinot started volunteering at Shine A Light. When its founder decided to move to Central America a few years ago, he asked Vautrinot if he’d keep the organization running.
So Vautrinot has seen people come and go, good people, characters he came to appreciate over the years. Some have moved to different cities. Some have been arrested. Some have gotten clean. Some he knows are dead, and some will be back down here soon enough.
And yet, no matter how dark and bleak things get, something pulls Vautrinot back underground, to lend a hand wherever he can.