Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas in the tunnels: Part III

The gift-giving in the tunnels went well. On Christmas Eve day, Rich from HELP of Southern Nevada and I went into three drains and ran into about 15 people. They seemed in good spirits and appreciative of the bags we handed out, which contained blankets, jackets, sweaters, knit caps, bottled water, disposable razors and other items. Later that day, Rick, who lives in a tunnel in south central Vegas, was wearing one of the sweaters, so I know some of the stuff was put to use.

Thanks to everyone who contributed: Andy, Kristyne, Sam, Mark and Tia. Special thanks to Tia’s mom Cyndi, aunt Penny and cousin Alex, who supplied the bags and many of the goods – some of them handmade.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

L.A. Times’ take on the tunnels

This poetic and inspirational story about escaping the tunnels ran on the front page of the L.A. Times a few days ago. It’s accompanied by an audio slide show, in which I make an un-introduced appearance:,0,204722.story

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas in the tunnels follow-up

Still could use more bottled water, canned goods, disposable razors, knit caps, winter coats, flashlights and batteries to take into the tunnels. If you live in Las Vegas and can spare any of these things, please let me know. I plan to go into the tunnels later this week.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas in the tunnels

Looks like I’m going to be in Las Vegas for Christmas, so I’m planning to play Santa Claus in the underground flood channels. I’d like to go down there with an assortment of “gifts” – new or used: winter clothes, socks, shoes, canned goods, bottled water, books, flashlights, batteries, etc. I need mostly clothing for men, but also some women’s clothing.

If you have anything you’d like to donate to the cause, please let me know in the next week and a half.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Out of the dark

Steve and Kathryn, the couple featured in some of the media coverage of the tunnels, have been housed. Two weeks ago, I helped them move some of their stuff from the side tunnel they lived in for a few years to a group home in central Vegas. Just talked to them yesterday and they seem to be doing well.

They’re in the capable hands of Louis Lacey, one of HELP of Southern Nevada’s most respected case managers. Lacey, Rich Penksa and many other HELP staffers have visited the side tunnel – located about a half-mile into a storm drain – regularly over the past seven or eight months. Their determination and bravery have resulted in several people leaving that tunnel and being housed. They’re changing lives – and it’s incredible to see.

I’ll try to keep you all updated on Steve and Kathryn and the 15 or so other people the Shine a Light crew has helped lead from the darkness.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Third printing

The third printing of Beneath the Neon is back from the printer. It looks a lot like the second printing, but with some media mentions and blurbs on the first page.

Thanks to everyone who bought a copy of the book. And if you haven’t bought one and want to, visit or your local bookstore. (Last I checked, the Borders at Town Square had several signed copies.)

Or let me know and I can hook you up with a deal out of the trunk of my car.

Friday, October 16, 2009

As Seen on AC360

As a fan of Anderson Cooper and his show, AC360, I thought this was pretty cool. A special thanks to CNN senior producer Michael Cary, who did a great job with the text version of the story and was extremely professional throughout the process.

The video:

The text version:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Shine a Light update

It’s been six months since HELP of Southern Nevada and I co-founded Shine a Light – a charity organization that helps the hundreds of men and women living in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas – so I figured I’d give you all a quick update. We’ve met and offered services to more than 100 people, got paperwork on about 35 (who are now on file) and housed and treated about 15. We’ve also helped people get IDs, food stamps, medical treatment and we’ve rescued a few animals.

The staff of HELP of Southern Nevada – led by Rich Penksa – and its affiliated organizations, including Straight from the Streets, Mojave Mental Health and WestCare, do incredible work! It’s been amazing to watch them take people from the tunnels and turn their lives around.

For more information on Shine a Light, visit

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sun piece

The U.K. newspaper the Sun also published a piece on the tunnels:

The ‘Nightline’ piece

“Nightline,” the popular ABC late-night news show, recently aired a story about the tunnels. One of the cool things about the piece was I got to meet Lisa Ling, who’s a prominent and talented American reporter. (Her sister Laura was detained in North Korea for more than four months.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Indy publishes piece about the tunnels

Guy Adams, a charming Welshman and the Independent’s L.A. correspondent, filed a long and informative story about the tunnels and the outreach we’re doing. Here it is (the link is long; if it breaks, just copy and paste):

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A little love from the Times

Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize winner with the New York Times, wrote a story about violence against the homeless and what some people are doing to try to prevent it. Toward the end of the piece, he mentions that homeless live in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas and he quotes your favorite (wink, wink) storm-drain chronicler.

It’s a good story, I think, about a really important subject:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Story collection update

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a literary journalism (or creative nonfiction) collection for a year and a half or so. Just wanted to update you all on that. I recently finished a 3,800-word story about the Diplomat, a historic apartment complex in the shadow of the Strip – and my home for the last four years. Now I’m working on a story about the Blue Angel, a weekly motel on East Fremont Street – and my home for seven days in late May.

The Blue Angel story, tentatively titled “My Week at the Blue Angel,” will be about 15,000 words and, I assume, the centerpiece of the collection. I have some solid material to work with: poetic color, conversations with the tenants, an interview with Betty Willis (who designed the Blue Angel sign and sculpture). I’m really excited about this story.

Anyway, I hope to finish the story and collection in the next few months. Then I’ll continue to shop it around.

I’ll keep you all updated.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

ABC News tours the tunnels

Jeremy Hubbard of ABC News put together one of the better TV pieces I’ve seen on the tunnels of Vegas. Blue, a dog who lives with several folks in a tunnel along I-15, is clearly the star. Also, Hubbard plugged Shine a Light at the end of the story. Nice!

Here it is:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shine a Light update

No one died during Shine a Light’s first trip into the tunnels, so we’re considering it a success.

Seriously, we accomplished at least a few things. Two groups went in five or six tunnels and got acquainted with the terrain and the people who live down there. Kristi found a kitten in an open-air channel and helped reunite it with its mom. My group, which included David, Lacey and Macheo, helped Brian – who lives deep in a tunnel near the Rio – get treatment for an abscess on his stomach. (Brian could’ve stayed in the program and gotten off the streets, but chose to return to the underworld.)

Of the 35 to 40 people we talked to in the tunnels, only a handful expressed interest in getting out. Obviously, this is going to be a challenge. But we’re forming relationships and we hope to nurture them.

We were short on bottled water and canned goods – and the homeless always appreciate nice, comfortable socks. If you can spare any of these items, please contact Fuilala Riley of HELP of Southern Nevada at 702-369-4357 ext. 238 or

Monday, March 23, 2009

With a little HELP from my friends

“May the Good Lord shine a light on you,
Make every song your favorite tune.
May the Good Lord shine a light on you,
Warm like the evening sun.”
“Shine a Light”
The Rolling Stones

I’ve started an organization to help the hundreds of men and women living in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.

With apologies to the Stones, Shine a Light is a collaboration between me, HELP of Southern Nevada and its affiliated organizations. I’ll escort drug counselors, caseworkers, social workers and other specialists into the tunnels twice a month. We’ll offer water, food, clothes, blankets and other items, when available, to the people we encounter – but more importantly, we’ll offer services, including housing, drug, medical and mental-health counseling, case management and referrals.

Founded in 1969, HELP of Southern Nevada is a charitable organization that helps families and individuals overcome barriers and attain self-sufficiency through services, training and referrals to community resources. For more information on HELP, call 702-369-4357 or visit To volunteer or donate money or items (water, canned goods, clothes, blankets, toiletries, etc.) to HELP, contact Fuilala Riley at 702-369-4357 ext. 238 or

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lost in translation

The German news magazine Der Spiegel published a story about Beneath the Neon and the underground flood channels of Las Vegas – apparently. See, the story is in German and I’m having little luck with online translators (unless, indeed, it’s written at a first-grade level and contains several non sequiturs). So I’m posting this one for my German-speaking friends. Maybe they can read the story and let me know if the writer, Hilmar Schmundt, shit-talked me or not.,1518,611972,00.html

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Another Las Vegas Advisor question

I answered another storm drain-related question for the Las Vegas Advisor, the newsletter put out by Huntington Press (which published Beneath the Neon). The question was, “The Las Vegas Valley is prone to flash floods. Have there been instances where transients were washed out of or drowned in the elaborate storm-drain system?”

Here’s my answer:

Located in the heart of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas averages only about 4.5 inches of rain a year – but it seems to all fall at once. Indeed, the resort city has a long and ugly history of flooding. In July 1905, two months after Las Vegas was founded, a thunderstorm soaked the dirt roads and wooden storefronts and sprawling ranches. (Minimal damage was done, as there was little developed property around at the time.) A series of floods swamped stores and homes, shorted out phone and power lines and shut down roads and railroads in the summer of 1955. And a July 1975 flood swept hundreds of cars from the parking lot of Caesars Palace, closed down a section of the Strip and claimed at least two lives.

The city’s most destructive modern-day flood occurred in July 1999, when three inches of rain fell in 90 minutes. The Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments performed more than 200 swift-water rescues and the water caused about $20 million in property damage. A week after the flood, President Clinton declared the county a disaster area.

Since 1982, more than 20 people have died in flash floods in Las Vegas. A handful of them lived in the city’s underground flood channels, or “storm drains,” which now span more than 300 miles and are home to hundreds of people.

It usually happens like this: A homeless man is drunk, high or asleep in a storm drain. Thunderclouds creep over the mountains and dump more than a half-inch of rain. A wall of water ambushes the man. If he’s lucky, he grabs his valued possessions – a duffel bag, clothes, his wallet – and fights his way out of the drain or finds refuge in a manhole shaft. If he’s unlucky, he’s swept away and drowns. Randy John Northrup was unlucky. A few days after a November 2002 rainstorm, his body was discovered half-buried in the Las Vegas Wash. He was 47 years old.

Most people I’ve met in the drains have a flood-survival story. On a cold and rainy Christmas morning, Jim got washed under the Orleans hotel-casino on his mattress. Firefighters rescued Mike hundreds of feet into a four-tunnel drain … just before he was swept under New York-New York and the MGM Grand. During the July 1999 flood, Ernie was trapped in a lateral pipe under I-15 for three days without food or drinking water.

“I’ve been lucky,” Ernie told me. “I’ve been real lucky. I’ve been through three of the big ones [floods] in here. I’ve been trapped in here for days when the rain got too rowdy. I’ll tell you what, Matt. I’ve seen God. Me and God have had some long talks, buddy.”

The lucky ones live to share their stories on the street. The unlucky ones are mentioned in news briefs buried deep in the morning paper, lowered into unmarked graves in downtown cemeteries and unknown to the millions of tourists who visit the Green Felt Jungle each year.