You likely know Las Vegas for its glittering lights, swanky casinos and million-dollar hotels. What you may not know is that underneath the famed streets of the Las Vegas strip there is a whole other world. In an extensive network of tunnels running beneath the city, there lives the mole people.
This underground community is the antithesis of the city above it. Where the bright lights of the casino make it seem as though it’s always daytime, in the tunnels it’s always dark. While Las Vegas attracts millions of tourists of all ages every year, the underground community is one of the most dangerous places in the city.
The Tunnels of Las Vegas
In the summer of 1975, a summer monsoon caused a flash flood in the Las Vegas Valley that caused millions of dollars in damage.
To prevent the same thing happening again, the state began building an extensive network of tunnels beneath the city. In the case of a sudden deluge, the tunnels would redirect water underground.
There are now more than two hundred miles of tunnels that run beneath Sin City, which have become home to hundreds of the state’s homeless people . These are the Mole People of Las Vegas.
Who Are the Mole People?
The tunnels of Las Vegas rose to fame in 2002 when a man named Timmy Weber used them to hide from the authorities after he murdered his girlfriend. While the Mole People of Las Vegas do have their fair share of troubles, they are not all murderers. In fact, most of them are American citizens who, for one reason or another, have become homeless.
Sadly, many of the people who live in these tunnels struggle with addictions, substance abuse, and mental health problems. Some experts estimate that approximately three hundred people live here.
The conditions in these tunnels can be challenging, and often dangerous. Matthew O’Brien, author of “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas,” has spent countless hours down in the tunnels.
“Even after exploring these tunnels for seven years, you still have a bit of anxiety when you’re walking into the tunnels because you never know what you’re going to find,” O’Brien said. “You never know what’s waiting in the dark.”
There is another danger of living in these tunnels- flooding. Heavy rainfall can cause millions of gallons of water to rush through the tunnels at speeds of up to thirty miles per hour. Because of this, many of the city’s flood-related drownings have been the mole people living in the tunnels.
Advocates for the homeless. Emergency first responders, and flood district personnel try to convince the mole people to leave their tunnel dwellings from June to September, which is monsoon season in the state, but they often can’t convince everyone.
Better Than the Street?
For many of the mole people, living in the tunnels is preferable to living in the streets, despite the dangers. As one couple put it, they don’t live there because they want to, they live there because they can. Such is the case for a man named Steve and his fiance Katherine:
“We fell in love…We want to get out of here, that’s always our main goal. We don’t want to live like this forever,” he said. “We don’t like living in the tunnels. We live here because we can, and we’re not bothered by anyone. The police and people like that don’t really know that we’re down here. You know, it’s a lot of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”
Another resident, Amanda, has been living in the tunnels since 2018. She has battled drug addiction and has a criminal record. The tunnels offer her a place to set up a home and have some roots.
“It’s better [down] here,” said Amanda. “As weird as it sounds.”
Helping the Mole People of Las Vegas
Las Vegas has one of the worst rates of urban homelessness in the entire United States. There are approximately 5 500 homeless people in the city, but only two thousand shelter beds available.
For social workers and medical personnel, the mole people pose a particular challenge because the nature of their dwellings makes them more difficult to reach. As such, a few people- some of them former tunnel dwellers themselves- have set up foundations to help them.
After spending so much time speaking with the mole people, O’Brien now helps them connect with an organization called HELP. O’Brien says that this agency helps “the worst of the worst” relocate into housing or shelters. It assesses their health and drug issues, and provides them with counselling.
Paul Vautrinot, a former tunnel dweller who has recovered from heroin addiction, is now a substance abuse caseworker. He helps operate Shine a Light, a small nonprofit organization that helps people in the tunnels find safer housing and rehab programs. Every week he leads outreach visits to the tunnel, handing out hygiene kits, water bottles, sandwiches, and socks to whoever wants them.
A Culture of Mistrust
In November 2019, the city of Las Vegas made it illegal to camp or sleep on certain streets when there are shelter beds available. Violators will either receive a fine of one thousand dollars or face six months in jail.
This won’t directly impact the mole people of Las Vegas. It will, however, cause the homeless people to be less trusting of the organizations that are trying to help them.
“If someone is fearful that they are going to be arrested or ticketed, they are going to disengage from street outreach,” says Emily Paulsen of the Nevada Homeless Alliance.
Despite the dangers, many of the mole people do not see themselves leaving the tunnels anytime soon. Not, at least, until the city can address some of its housing problems. Until then, the dangers of living in an unpatrolled, dark, and hazardous underground world are preferable to whatever waits for them above.