- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2010

LAS VEGAS | Underneath its glitzy casinos, far from the bright marquees, there is another Las Vegas, a pitch-black, dank underworld virtually unknown and unseen by those who live, work and play above.

About 300 people — mostly men battling demons of various addictions — live in the underground storm system built to protect the desert playground from the infrequent cloudburst.

There’s no sign or word of welcome down here. Drug use is nearly universal. Most people carry makeshift weapons and the police don’t often come unless they are called.

But the denizens have found a haven in the labyrinth of concrete tunnels that snake beneath the city and its suburbs.

In a place where total darkness can be just one bend away, visitors to this urban netherworld stumble across the unexplainable. A beat-up teddy bear lies next to a dirty chef’s knife propped up against a wall. Graffiti turns into murals near sparse pockets of light.

A scruffy black cat’s meow is startling as it scrambles in a pile of junk to escape a flashlight’s beam. The echoes of footsteps change as boots hit standing water, or accidentally kick empty beer bottles as they tiptoe past midday sleepers. Fetid smells of garbage, dirty water and wet cloth waft through the corridors.

Each subterranean encampment can be as spartan as a few worn blankets, or as elaborate as an apartment fitted with queen-size beds, dining utensils and knickknacks.

One camp just west of the Las Vegas Strip is wallpapered with hardcore pornography, a collage of magazine pages modified with hand-drawn comic booklike dialogue bubbles giving voice to naked women.

“You’d be surprised the things that wash down in this channel … it’s hard to even describe,” said Rick “Iron” Cobble, a 45-year-old Oklahoma native, who sleeps in a 5-foot-high tunnel near the south end of the glittering Strip, not far from the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

Mr. Cobble, battling severe drug addiction while living near a mound of washed up garbage, said his only belongings are a small mound of blankets and his clothes.

“Right now I’m just trying to survive,” Mr. Cobble said. “That’s the only way you can put it.”

Rich Penksa, a retired correctional sergeant who began traversing the tunnels earlier this year for a nonprofit’s homeless outreach, said he first heard about the tunnels years ago from prison inmates who told tales of living under Sin City when not behind bars.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt odder than when I’m down in that tunnel environment,” said Mr. Penksa, who once encountered thousands of spiders feasting on the baby mosquitoes multiplying in standing water. Mr. Penksa frequents the tunnels for HELP of southern Nevada, which is working to place tunnel residents into more conventional homes.

What started as a piecemeal set of individual drains is now part of a 500-mile maze of pipes, washes, basins and open channels, said Betty Hollister, spokeswoman for the Clark County Regional Flood Control District that built the system. Local jurisdictions maintain it using sales tax money at a cost of $7.9 million last fiscal year.

About 200 miles of the system — mostly built since 1986 — are underground drains ranging from 2-foot pipes to 12-foot-high, 20-foot-wide reinforced concrete boxes that shape channels, Miss Hollister said.

The people who call these tunnels home — mostly men ages 35 to 50, are a distinct breed, Mr. Penksa said.

“Even the folks that are homeless above ground are very leery of the inhabitants of the tunnels. They’re kind of feared,” he said.

Annie Wilson, homeless liaison for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said officers usually only go into the tunnels when they are called or if they are doing homeless outreach.

Mr. Penksa said he has encountered a few children and women living alone below, but no families.

The drains and 82 basins work together like bathtubs, with rainwater filling basins then draining through large output pipes, Hollister said. The system, driven by gravity, propels water east to Lake Mead. The change in elevation from Red Rock Canyon — 2,800 feet, or twice the height of the Stratosphere Tower — means water can travel as fast as 30 mph through the tunnels with levels rising as much as a foot per minute, Hollister said.

“When the water comes, if you’re not ready for it, it’ll take you,” Mr. Cobble said. “It’s not like a little trickle.”

Fortunately, Las Vegas went 347 days without any rainfall in 2009, and had only five days when at least 0.10 of an inch of precipitation fell. Still, since 1960, there have been 31 flood deaths in the city, according to the flood district, including five deaths since 1992 believed to be homeless people.

Matthew O’Brien, a writer who began exploring the tunnels in 2002 and wrote a book about them published in 2007, said people live in the tunnels for a wide range of reasons, including to get out of the desert summer heat that easily exceeds 100 degrees.

Mr. O’Brien said the vast majority are addicted to either drugs, alcohol, gambling or some combination of the vices. The tunnel residents, he said, largely live off the excesses of the casino corridor by panhandling or cashing out unplayed slot machines — a practice known as the credit hustle.

Mr. Penksa said the majority of tunnel dwellers don’t want assistance.

Still, HELP has placed 18 tunnel residents into permanent housing since March.

“In these tunnels, no one bothers you, no one harasses you — there’s a permanence,” he said. “When you leave and come back, you know your home’s going to be there in the tunnel.”