MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. Nevada has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. In the city of Las Vegas, more than 14,000 people live on the streets. That's according to recent estimates.
BRAND: Though you probably could go a whole weekend in Vegas and never see signs of a crisis. It's really a matter of knowing where to look.
COHEN: Adam Burke made the journey into one unlikely homeless encampment. He brings us this story.
(Soundbite of slot machines)
ADAM BURKE: We begin with a well-worn Vegas cliche, the sounds of slot machines on a busy casino floor - tourists, blackjack tables, cocktail waitresses in impossibly tiny outfits. If you can afford the price of admission, an elevator could take you to more vice and excess upstairs - rooftop pools and lavish suites.
But what if there were an elevator that went downward? Maybe there is. Maybe there isn't. Let's just say there is. You could descend below the sunken lounges, past kitchens and utility closets, through layers of concrete until you reach the hidden matrix of tunnels beneath the Strip, the storm drains.
(Soundbite of splashing water)
Mr. MATTHEW O'BRIEN (Writer): So yeah, now, we're moving underneath of Caesar's Palace, walking underneath kind of the main property there.
My name is Matthew O'Brien. I've been exploring these storm drains for more than five years. I think I know these storm drains better than anyone who doesn't actually live in them. And I know the storm drain system probably - and this is nothing to brag about - but probably better than anyone else.
BURKE: There are over 300 miles of underground tunnels that crisscross beneath the city. In 2007, Matt O'Brien published a book about them.
(Soundbite of splashing water)
Mr. O'BRIEN: This is one of the, kind of the creepier areas of the storm drain system. Very remote, wet, extremely dark.
BURKE: It's after 9 p.m. on a weekday night. We're wading through the muck and gravel that blankets this tunnel floor. We arrive at a chamber where the tunnel opens wide. The plump, almost illegible cursive of graffiti lettering covers the walls, beautiful colors and designs.
Mr. O'BRIEN: So, this is one of the underground art galleries that I discovered down in the storm drains. Basically, you walk in, about a half mile in pitch dark, and you have artwork going down the walls that goes down for about a half mile.
BURKE: Ahead, the tunnel devours our flashlight beams. I keep hearing noises that make me stop and shine the light back in the other direction.
Mr. O'BRIEN: There's always the butterflies. There's always that apprehension when you walk into a storm drain. Just because, even if you've been in the drain the day before, that doesn't mean it's going to be the same environment, you know, coming down the next day.
I've even met people down in the drains who are really cool one day, and then you come back the next day, and it's not cool, you know. All of a sudden, they'll tell you to screw off or kind of reach for their shank or their self-defense weapon and make it clear they don't want to talk to you today, so.
BURKE: Over the years, O'Brien has met more than 100 people who live in the tunnels. They're scattered in pockets across the city. We head away from the trickling water, down a side channel that stays dry most of the time. The ceiling gets lower, the corridor narrower, and the air becomes stale with the faint scent of body odor and human waste. We arrive at an encampment, a kind of cardboard lean-to.
Mr. O'BRIEN: Yo! Anyone here?
BURKE: Continuing on, we come upon two men sitting in the glow of candlelight. One of them with a shag of greasy hair is slumped on a couch. In front of him on a makeshift coffee table are a few hypodermic needles. The other man is better groomed. He's wearing a button-down shirt and a decent pair of slacks. To my relief, they both know Matt O'Brien.
BRIAN: Hey, man, check this out.
STEVE: Hey, thanks for the Thanksgiving thing.
BURKE: Brian and Steve haven't seen Matt since he was down here last Thanksgiving.
STEVE: We came back and there was a Thanksgiving dinner on each of our beds - big turkey and stuffing, and it was pretty good.
BURKE: Steve is the well-dressed one. He's 42, grew up in Las Vegas, and he makes his living at casinos around town doing what's known as silver mining, which means he looks for credits left behind on slot machines.
STEVE: I'll start at Harrah's. And depending on how I feel, I'll go to either to The Venetian or The Mirage. A lot depends on how I look because those are two very hard places if you don't look right. They'll stop you and - or watch you. It's always busy at Harrah's, so you're able to walk through the casino without, you know, drawing much attention to yourself.
BURKE: To blend in, you need to dress the part. Steve has a rack of button-down shirts and slacks. He takes us to his quarters, cardboard walls enclosing a queen-size bed, a dresser, even a makeshift shower.
STEVE: Two point five gallon water jugs. I try to keep these two full right here, just, you know, pull the knobs out, and I got all the supplies and stuff - shaving cream, shampoo.
BURKE: You got a little mirror right there.
STEVE: Yeah. Got my mirror in there, a little stand here and a water-overflow bucket. Like I say, I try to be as - try to live comfortable if I've got to be out here.
BURKE: Steve says his luck varies. The night before, he visited several casinos, and things hadn't been going so well.
STEVE: Then I went to the Bellagio, and I was walking through going, darn, this is just going to be a hopeless case. I turned the corner in one area of the casino, and there on the machine was $116. Nobody around, so I hit the cash out button. Took it, cashed it out, and that was the end of my night. It helped me out today. I ate very well today. I had a late breakfast last night. And I still got about 50 bucks left.
BURKE: But Steve is addicted to methamphetamine and gambling, so holding onto money can be difficult.
STEVE: That's what I'm trying not to do is gamble my money away anymore. And as far as the drugs, I'm trying to slowly get myself, you know, to where I don't crave it. Tonight, I'm taking it easy. I figure I'll just call it an early night and see what I can do tomorrow.
BURKE: After a while in the Las Vegas storm drains, it's easy to forget that directly overhead is a very different world. Matt O'Brien is often struck by the contrast.
Mr. O'BRIEN: You can be in the Hard Rock Casino, which is one of the hipper, kind of younger, richer hotel casinos in town, kind of celebrity watching, people watching, betting thousand dollars per hand in a game of blackjack. And right underneath the Hard Rock is one of the worst skid rows I've ever seen in my life.
BURKE: Broken bottles, hypodermic needles strewn all over the tunnel floor, people passed out.
Mr. O'BRIEN: And last time I was down in there, I actually saw some blankets and like, teddy bears and stuffed animals and stuff, which gave me the impression that a young kid was living down in there with a mom or dad or both.
BURKE: That contrast is what kept O'Brien coming back to the tunnels long after the book was finished. He brings food and clothing to people like Brian and Steve on a regular basis. And the tunnels have become a kind of refuge for him, too, from the city.
Mr. O'BRIEN: When work wasn't going all that great or my relationship with my girlfriend wasn't that great, I would just strap on the boots and grab the flashlight and jut walk a tunnel to get away from everything above ground. You know, in some ways, there are certain things about underground Vegas that I prefer to aboveground Vegas.
BURKE: Once, we walked a long tunnel that led to the dark recesses of a parking structure. A little further, and we were back in a crush of pedestrians on the Las Vegas strip. Matt O'Brien looked a little out of place with his dark clothing, knit cap, muddy boots, still clutching a heavy-duty flashlight.
Then an idea popped in my head. Maybe O'Brien should become the official guide to the storm drains. Visitors could explore the underbelly of Las Vegas. They would meet real live human casualties of a city that trades on excess.
Unidentified Man: Beer pong?
Unidentified Woman: Beer pong!
BURKE: Then again, that might be too real. Besides, surveying all the tourists, no one was checking out the gutters. Everyone was looking up at the flickering lights. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.