Homeless People Live in Tunnels Under Las Vegas

Fortunes are won and lost in Las Vegas all the time. But the city itself has been on the losing end of the foreclosure crisis. The city's homeless population has grown from nearly 12,000 two years ago to nearly 14,000 today. Yet there are fewer than 1,000 beds in shelters, forcing many to go to extremes in seeking shelter. CBS News correspondent Seth Doane goes underneath the Vegas strip.

Las Vegas was built on the dream of striking it rich. But beneath the bright lights is a much darker world for those who've struck out.

"When we come down here a lot of times, we don't know what to expect," said Macheo Willis of HELP of Southern Nevada.

Armed with flashlights, Willis took CBS News correspondent Seth Doane into the tunnels underneath Las Vegas. They journeyed deep into a labyrinth of flood tunnels that snake for more than 200 miles, up to 20 feet below the ritzy casinos.

Down here, hundreds, maybe even a thousand, homeless people escape the desert heat and the pressures of the world above.

Mike, who's hooked on meth, says tunnel life was an adventure at first. But now, eight years later?

"What a big mistake I made," he said.

Names written on the tunnel walls now serve as a roster of those who've made mistakes. Barry, who spent seventeen years in prison, lives here. He has two books, which he calls his "library."

Amid the scraps and misfortune, lives are pieced together. Sali and her partner Diego fled to these tunnels just six weeks ago.

Sali worked as a cashier in the Frontier Hotel for 21 years, before it closed three years ago.

"Look at where I am at," she cries. "I got lots of pain, you know? A lot of pain."

Sali and Diego used to lay tiles in homes, until the construction boom went bust. Diego said the recession didn't just hit him. He said it, "hit me in my head - so bad."

Instead of laying tile, they've now laid a line of moss to keep the water off their bed.

Diego uses a bucket to collect tunnel water runoff for a "shower."

"You came from Cuba here in search of the American dream," Doane said. "This doesn't look like the American dream."

"Millions of people lose American dreams already. It's not only me," he replied.

Living Under the Las Vegas

Journalist Matt O'Brien wrote a book, "Beneath the Neon," about this elaborate subterranean world of beds with headboards, makeshift pantries, and even art on the walls.

"Down here, you have some privacy, you know?" O'Brien said. "You can kind of live on your own."

O'Brien's interest has turned into advocacy - and he's connected folks in the tunnels with a local non-profit group called "HELP of Southern Nevada" - which has since started an outreach program down below.

"Metaphorically, we could be that - that light at the end of the tunnel - we could be that prayer that's answered," Macheo Willis said.

It was for Randy, who now has his own apartment thanks to "HELP" - which has placed more than seventy people in transitional housing. It gives hope to the hundreds still living in the shadows beneath the neon.
  • Seth Doane

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