Yihyun Jeong and Laura Sposato are students in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Here, they tell the story of how they learned about the hidden community of homeless living beneath Las Vegas and their journey underground.
Beneath the sparkling lights of the Las Vegas Strip is a web of catacombs, 200 miles of flood channels that have become home to an estimated 300 people who have no other home.
The tunnels and their occupants were briefly in the news a couple of years ago, and we were intrigued. We knew the city of Las Vegas constructed the tunnels in 1986 to help control water runoff from the nearby mountains and to prevent flooding in the city. We knew that hundreds of people reportedly lived in this dark underbelly of Sin City.
But we wanted to know more: Who are these tunnel dwellers and what secrets do they keep? What is there to discover in the darkness of the long shadows?
Watch Yihyun Jeong and Laura Sposato's short movie "A Way of Life" about their journey into Las Vegas' underbelly.
We purchased our tickets, non-refundable. There was no chance of backing out. In mid-October, we found ourselves at the entrance to the tunnels. We looked to our right and saw the famous "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign and laughed. We knew our experience that day was going to be starkly different than the experiences of the tourists waiting in line to get their photos taken with an Elvis impersonator.
With cameras in hand and headlamps strapped on, we stepped into the darkness.
The first things we saw were empty bottles and cigarette butts strewn across the concrete floor. The first thing we smelled was the stench of liquor. But the tunnels also were cleaner than we expected, and easier to navigate, so we walked on.
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The first person we met was a man named John. Three years ago, John left Florida and headed for Las Vegas and what he hoped would be a new life. He has been living in the tunnels ever since. He has no plans to leave, he said. He likes living in the tunnels. He's right where he wants to be.
John was so friendly that we started to feel more confident. There wasn't anything here to be afraid of, we thought, so we ventured farther into the dark. A few yards later, we began to have second thoughts. Someone we couldn't see screamed at us to go back. "We don't want to be bothered!" "Stay away!" We kept turning corners, moving away from the voices. We wondered: Is this right? Is this our story to tell?
We spent much of the next two days trudging through the dark tunnels. We met more underground dwellers who did not tell us to go away. Instead, they poured out their stories of personal and professional setbacks, the other places they've lived and how they ended up underground. It's not so bad in the tunnels, they told us: It's usually dry and relatively safe; they're generally left alone. They seemed glad that someone wanted to hear their stories.
It's the most humbling experience either of us can remember - and the most surreal. The only place more improbable than the Vegas strip, we conclude, is what lies beneath it.