Yesterday, Thanksgiving morning, I went down into the storm drains beneath Las Vegas with Matt O’Brien, my wife and some other friends to deliver food and supplies to the homeless people who live beneath this city.
Eight years ago, Matt and I wrote a series of articles in the Las Vegas CityLife about the storm drains and the people who live in them. We got a lot of coverage for it — the early 21st century version of retweets — and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. (Your publisher nominates you, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it was still pretty cool.)
Matt went on to continue exploring the drains, ultimately writing a book about his experiences, Beneath The Neon. I went off to start a dot.com. Though I’ve been down in the drains a few times since, Matt was the one who really kept involved with the situation and the lives of the people down below. He even founded a community project, Shine A Light, to help people get out of the darkness and into recovery programs and housing.
A lot has changed since I was last down there. For one thing, there are a lot more people than there were before (though nowhere near the 700+ that Britain’s The Sun suggests). And the people who are down there seem to have made the transition from crashers to squatters; several of them had incredibly organized and elaborate “houses”. The drains are beginning to look less like a place to doss down for a few nights or a week, and more like a Sterlingian interstitial favela. The very existence of these subterranean temporary autonomous zones is a quirk of Las Vegas’s uniquely Manichean climate and geography: it’s either bone-dry or flooding here at any given time. The fact that it’s mostly the former is why people can take up semi-permanent residence in the storm drains here. They’re almost always dry, except when they’re not…and if you’re in them when a wall of water comes rushing down out of the western mountains, you’re probably dead.
This is both heartening and disturbing. Heartening in the sense that these people are establishing some sort of equilibrium for themselves, no matter how ephemeral or transitory; a couple of folks mentioned losing all their mostly dumpster-obtained possessions when floods came through. But it’s also disturbing in the sense that eight years after Matt and I alerted the world to the problem, storm drains are still serving as a substitute for homeless shelters in Las Vegas.
The official treatment of the homeless by Las Vegas and Clark County is reprehensible, bordering in some cases on outright human rights violations. Mayor Oscar Goodman made the national news by attempting several years ago to make it illegal to give food to homeless people. This was after he made the statement publicly that Las Vegas “has no homeless problem”, a statement which any resident or off-Strip visitor to the city can tell you is ludicrous, bordering on the surreal. I can’t find the exact numbers at the moment, but a few years ago I saw a statistic which suggested that less than 1% of Clark County’s budget went to social services. This wouldn’t surprise any Las Vegas residents. The streets (and the tunnels beneath them) are full of walking wounded, human casualties of addiction and mental illness, not to mention people who simply fell through the cracks of an increasingly depressed local economy.
Several months ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who told me that “80% of the homeless are addicts” and that most of them don’t want help — that the services are there if they want them. In the case of social services, this is simply and demonstrably untrue: both public and private services for the homeless and for addicts here are criminally underfunded. More than one of the people I met in the drains yesterday told me they were on waiting lists for housing and treatment programs, sometimes for months. And when you live in a concrete cave under a city, you may not have months to wait on help.
But more to the point, I think, this is an example of a deeper, underlying attitude I see again and again in Las Vegas: a profound and distressing lack of empathy for those in need. Put another way: this is a mean-ass town. If Las Vegas has a spiritus urbus, it’s psychopathic.
Yes, a great percentage, maybe even the majority of homeless people are addicts. So what? Las Vegas is a city of addiction. I’d personally guess the rate of alcoholism in the city runs about 10%, maybe higher, most of it undiagnosed or treated. (That includes, ironically, the acquaintance who was railing about homeless addicts.) Even more are hooked on illicitly-obtained prescription pills. And God only knows how many gambling addicts manage to keep their addiction in just enough check to keep a roof over their heads. This is a city that subtly and not-so-subtly celebrates alcohol culture, cocaine culture, speed culture. Goodman himself is a notorious public drunk who once told an audience of schoolchildren that if he only had one thing to take to a desert island, he’d bring a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin.
Apparently it’s okay to be a drunk or a crackhead or a junkie in Las Vegas, so long as you can hold your shit. Lose your handle on your own vices and you aren’t worth saving.
The people beneath Las Vegas’s neon can’t rely on the city or the county or the state to help them, and they don’t seem to be able to rely on the goodwill of their fellow citizens; most Las Vegans don’t know they’re down there and most of the ones who do wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. And their numbers seem to be slowly, steadily growing. These people live in the cold, in the dark, in shit-smelling tunnels where no light shines, like fucking rats. That’s not acceptable.
Matt’s working a lot with Help of Southern Nevada to help people get out of the drains and back into the world. I’m working on ideas for how to raise money for HOSN to give them more opportunity to help the people in the drains, and I’ll post more on that as I come up with viable notions.
In the meantime, throw your spare holiday change at HOSN, even if you don’t live in Las Vegas. Help them help the people who cannot help themselves. Help them shine a light in the darkness.