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Finding Light at the End of the Las Vegas Storm Tunnels

The inspirational story of how one man rose from living in the depths of the storm drains beneath Las Vegas to helping other tunnel-dwellers rebuild their lives.

Words by Pete Samson

For Paul Vautrinot, the hour before the dawn was the darkest.

He had been living in the storm drains under the bright lights of Las Vegas, part of an interwoven subculture of homeless men and women who had built an elaborate community of camps directly beneath the flashiest city in the US.

Some of these camps feature king size beds, a collection of clothes in wardrobes, packed bookshelves, makeshift showers and are decorated with ornaments collected from the leftovers from hotels on The Strip above.

For Paul, like hundreds of others, the tunnels had initially offered some solace and a sense of community. Despite the deadly cloud of monsoon season bringing rains that flushed out their belongings and threatened their lives, it was a place to settle and call home.

But after three years, Paul’s honeymoon period was over. He had fallen out with his fellow tunnel-dwellers, his drug dealing was catching up with him and he was ready to leave his girlfriend sleeping in their bed to set up camp in another part of the city.

But as he was preparing to take a ceremonial shot of heroin he was saving for this moment, a black cricket appeared from the darkness and jumped in his face. This intervention from the unlikeliest source set off a chain of events that led to him getting arrested and then taking a new path and finding a life free from drugs and full of purpose.

He is now a happily married dad-of-two, living in the Las Vegas suburbs and working in his perfect job — running a charity dedicated to helping others get out of the drains and back on their feet.

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IMG_0595.jpgThe underground world beneath Las Vegas // 📸: Austin Hargrave


While Paul credits the cricket as the first significant meeting that led him to his destiny, the second was with local writer and charity worker Matt O’Brien. Matt wrote a book in 2007 called ‘Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas‘ about the people living in the storm drains and two years later launched a charity called Shine a Light to help them.

And in 2011, he took Mr Feelgood co-founder Pete Samson into the drains to write an article that introduced this hidden subculture to millions around the world.

Now Matt has followed up with his book ‘Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains‘ about the people who have escaped the tunnels and turned their lives around. And we were honored to return to the topic to tell that story of courage.

Matt says: “When I first went into the tunnels in 2002, I thought I might find some graffiti, maybe some interesting debris. I was certainly not expecting to find hundreds of people living in these underground flood channels that can fill up with water really quickly and have become a huge part of my life for the last 18 years.

“The impression most people have of Las Vegas is the neon lights and the glitz and the glamor. And to see that dark and grey underworld where people are barely surviving, literally right below the casinos, is really quite a contrast. That was a surprise to me — and apparently to the rest of the world too.

“For this latest book, I interviewed 36 people that made it out of the tunnels and got off the drugs, found jobs and reunited with family. It’s really the happy ending to my first book that I never thought would have been possible.

“Paul, who I interviewed for the book, works full time as a social worker at a Las Vegas non-profit, Freedom House. And when I moved to Central America to teach three years ago, I asked if he would take on Shine a Light. He had been sober a couple of years at that point, and said: ‘Of course, this is my destiny.’

“So I took him down there and gradually passed it to him. Now they go down on a regular basis and offer housing, drug counseling and whatever these people need.

“I amazed by the human spirit and how we can change and survive. And a lot of them do want to change, they just have to have an avenue to make that change. I’m also amazed by how low down someone can be, literally in this case, and then to rise like a phoenix and find sobriety and a reason to live and connect with people. And Paul really illustrates that.”

Here Paul, 33, tells Mr Feelgood of his rise from the darkness.

Paul and his two kids // 📸: Andrew Keeler / Apex Kreative

Paul and his two kids // 📸: Andrew Keeler / Apex Kreative


PAUL’S STORY

I was about 19 years old when I discovered heroin — and I was homeless within a year. I started living on and off the streets — made a couple of sabbaticals to Florida and Los Angeles — then ended up coming back to Las Vegas from Florida to live with my half-brother. But within about nine months I was homeless again, on the streets strung out on heroin and I found the tunnels. I was 24.

I lived in the drains from late 2011 until August 2014. I was living in a car and I had got to a point where I was kind of selling drugs, but it wasn’t like Scarface or anything like that. I sold drugs just to get high, I wasn’t making money. But I met some guys and they’re like: ‘Hey man. You’ve got a lot of heart. Where are you staying?’ I told them I was sleeping in a car, and they said: ‘Why don’t you come down the tunnels with us?’ I had heard about the tunnels but I also knew you don’t just go down there to live on your own. You kind of have to be invited because there is a whole hierarchy who lay claim to the tunnels.

So I get down there and there are couches and a fire pit and they all have their own bed and camps. I thought: ‘Oh man, I’m home. I have arrived.’ I bought into the lifestyle and camaraderie immediately and felt like I had finally found stability, as sick as that sounds. When you live above ground you always have to pack up everything and carry everything with you. In the tunnels they had things set up in a way that was comfortable and they weren’t packing up every day. They would leave it there, go out and do what they did, then come back and it was almost like coming home. So that part was really attractive to finally have a place I could feel safe and keep my stuff. And I was told the cops never went down there and that was great because when you live above ground you’re always on the look out.

I had found a group of people who lived the same way I did, they seemed happy and they would party around a camp fire every night and everyone brought something to the table. So it was not just fend for yourself, it’s like a tribe. We police ourselves, we have our own set of rules. There were at least 15 of us in our tunnel but hundreds of others staying in other tunnel systems around the city. I got introduced to this whole subculture of people that were all interwoven.

And I sold meth and heroin so I had something to offer and I got connected quite quickly. There was definitely a romanized period of time, a honeymoon stage where it felt like everything is good. And I had just missed monsoon season so there I was for months and months on end with zero problems.

But then the water starts coming and I started experiencing that side of it. And the dichotomy between the two energies is insane. You go from this quiet, calming safe feeling to the water coming down and not only taking everything with it but also endangering your safety. And all of a sudden you don’t trust leaving your stuff down there and when there’s a single cloud out you’re getting scared. When things are good everyone is around and happy and helping each other. When things go bad everyone is fighting for themselves.

The famous Caesar’s Palace towers over an entrance to the tunnels // 📸: Austin Hargrave

The famous Caesar’s Palace towers over an entrance to the tunnels // 📸: Austin Hargrave


Over time, the romance fades and I start breaking a lot of rules. Some of those rules were that you don’t bring anyone down there without permission, or doesn’t live here or isn’t part of our culture. But I’m selling drugs and start selling to anybody and everybody and I’m too paranoid to leave the tunnel, so I have them coming down underground and I shake up this safety net created by these people and they all started disappearing.

So one night, I am down there and I have this grand plan. I’m done with my girlfriend, I’m done with being in this tunnel and I’m done with the cops in the area and I had warrants out for my arrest. My addiction had got the best of me and the drug dealing I had going on was catching up with me. I had this plan I was going to leave my girlfriend and go to a different part of town and find a new tunnel where the cops didn’t know me and she wouldn’t know where I’d gone.

I was waiting for my girlfriend to fall asleep for five days, as that’s what methamphetamine will do, and she finally falls asleep and I pull out the little bit of heroin I have left. I have this whole ritual where I’m laying out my drugs and I have the spoon prepared and then this big black cricket jumps into my line of sight. I’m so out of my mind that I start talking to the cricket and it’s getting closer and closer to me. Finally it’s within one jump of me and I say: ‘Don’t you do it!’ Then the cricket jumps straight at my face and I drop all my drugs all over my pants and my bed. I get all pissed off and I grab a flashlight and I spend hours looking for this cricket and I never find it. My whole goal was to do this one shot of drugs and leave, but the cricket stalls me and I get distracted. So finally I get over it and I go and sit down and start seeing what I can salvage. Then I see two flashlights at the end of the tunnel, and I know immediately they were police. So I stash the heroin in my pocket and they come in ask my name and social security and if I have any warrants, and I said I didn’t. They ask how long will it take me to pack up and get out of here and I said a few minutes. So they said they’d be at the end of the tunnel waiting for me and start walking out. I woke up my girlfriend and I grabbed my stuff and start running out of the other end of the tunnel. All I could think about was that I’d waited days to do this heroin and now the cops were here and I had warrants out for my arrest. I ran out of the other end of the tunnel and I took the last bit of heroin I had. Then the cops drove around and showed up. They said: ‘I thought you said you didn’t have any warrants? You’ve got warrants out in two jurisdictions.” I said: ‘Wait a minute, I thought I only had a warrant in Henderson.’ That wasn’t the right answer. They arrested me and they put me in jail.

So two cops and a cricket saved my life. I absolutely think that cricket was there to help me. I always say it’s pretty cool that my god is humble enough to come in the form of a cricket to change the course of my life. If that cricket wouldn’t have turned up I would have taken that shot and left and would never have been arrested.

I ended up serving 50 days, which for a lot of people is not a long time — but for a heroin addict it is. I was forced to withdraw and I started to realize I’d been on the go for eight years with nothing on my mind but heroin. I was going to do 361 days in jail but they offered me drug court and I got a suspended sentence. That basically means they’re going to let you out early and if it doesn’t work out they’re going to put you back in to serve the rest of the time. My head just tells me I’m that much closer to getting high again. They put me in a house across town from the tunnels and told me I didn’t have to worry about rent right now. Just go to 12 step meetings, go to counseling and show up to court once a week and we’ll play it week to week. All I’m thinking is I’m going to get out and I’m going to run. I was going to disappear back into the tunnels — deep enough, far enough where they’re not going to find me for a long time. But the first day I got out it was pouring with rain and I thought: ‘Well, I’m not going to go today. It’s raining and the tunnels are washed out.’ Then it was monsoon season for a few months and I waited and thought: ‘Once the rainy season passes, then I’ll go.’ But in the meantime I start to do everything they told me to do. I remembered this manager at a car wash, right above the tunnels I lived in, said to me: ‘If you ever want to get your s*** together come here and I’ll give you a job.’ So I get this job and slowly I’m making the moves to get on my feet. But my brain wasn’t really buying into it yet. I was still telling myself I was going to run when the time was right, but I didn’t want to go to jail and ruin the opportunity I had to disappear. After four months I had an opportunity to leave for California with a girl, and I nearly did it, but that day I got off the bus and instead of walking across the street to meet her, I thought: ‘I really don’t want to do this. I think I kind of like what I’m doing.’ So instead of walking across the street I waited for the next bus to come and I took that bus home.

I didn’t think I could get sober. I didn’t think my life would be livable without heroin. But there were these little moments where I kept making the decision to wait a little longer. The next thing I know I got a year sober and thought: ‘F***, this isn’t that bad.’ Then three months later I graduated drug court and I felt like I had accomplished something huge. I was 15 months clean, then as I’m walking out of the court house my very first thought was: ‘You can go and get high now.’ And my very next thought was: ‘But why?’ And at this time I had met my soon-to-be wife and she was pregnant with my first son. And it all just made sense to me at the point — the things that were happening in my life were so much better than the things I ever thought I would regain the opportunity to do. I was in love with a beautiful woman, I had a son on the way. Growing up in fostered care, I always wanted to have a family and raise a son and do it right. I thought my opportunity had past on being able to do any of this, and in reality it hadn’t.

I ended up getting offered a job to work the graveyard shift at a non-profit treatment center that was just opening, called Freedom House. It was a dollar less an hour than the car wash but it was a stable pay check. Then four months later the program manager went off to do something else and I got offered that job. The founder knew I had just got two years sober and said: ‘Are you ready to try this?’ He was in recovery too and our stories were very similar and he wanted to give me this opportunity. I went from $9 to $16-an-hour overnight. This started this journey that has been nothing but amazing for me. I grow and I learn and I start to learn about the clinical side of addiction and mental health and I start to gain all this knowledge that empowers me to really help the people that come from where I came from.

Then Matt O’Brien called me one day and tells me he’s writing this book about people who lived underground and have figured out a way to change their lives. We met and he asked me if I wanted to go back down there with him. I thought about it for less than a second. I was doing really good and any reservation about going back down there was gone. We went down to the tunnels and I felt empowered and I felt alive and I’m coming up with all these ideas. I’m asking Matt: ‘What do you do about housing? What do you do about treatment? If these guys come out then how do we help them?’ He said he relied on local non-profits, and I said: ‘What if I could give you that direct line in. Instead of trying to find someone who might be able to help, you just ring Freedom House and we can help.’ And he then says: ‘Well, I’m actually moving to San Salvador in about two months. And I actually need someone who is willing to take this over for me and it sounds like you might be the right guy.’ I was honored. I spent the next two months worth of weekends going out with Matt and he’s trying to show me all the different tunnels and introduce me to all the different people that I might need to know. And then he leaves and I’m here with this responsibility on my hands. And ever since then it’s been growing to the point that we’ve moved out just over 40 people this year from the tunnels — and about 75 in total since I became involved about three years ago.

Matt and Paul at the entrance to the tunnels.

Matt and Paul at the entrance to the tunnels.


Now my program manager is out of the tunnels too and he has two years sober and is helping me run it. And a lot of our volunteer crews were once homeless and that’s the culture we try to create. So the people who are going down to the tunnels can say: ‘We were here, and we’re just here to help.’ And it’s a long game. We don’t go down and say: ‘Do you want to come out with us today?’ We go down and say: ‘Here’s a pair of socks, here’s a couple of batteries, here’s a sandwich. And if you’re ever ready to come out let me know.’ There are so many different working parts to this. There’s the part where I get to go down there and I get to show some humanity by just showing up and saying: ‘It’s nice to meet you’, regardless of whether or not you want to come out. Then there’s the part where you get them into treatment, and a lot of time you hear: ‘I didn’t even know this existed.’ So even if they don’t stay you get the satisfaction that you planted some seeds. And I think the biggest honor about all of this is the ones that come out and they stick around and I get to watch their hopelessness fade. Then they start asking questions about helping and then they become a working part of what we’re doing. Then all of a sudden the man becomes unrecognisable as it’s not the same person that you met in the tunnels. That’s the part that keeps me fueled.

When people ask me why is it so hard to get them out, I say we are asking these people to give up everything they have and have worked for, and I cannot tell them what they are going to have to do because it varies from person to person. It’s going to be emotionally and physically challenging and you’re not going to like it all. And maybe at the end of the road we can change your life. It’s a really hard sell. The thought of crossing a bridge blind is not that appealing to people. The amount of courage it takes for somebody to take that risk is a huge responsibility for us to take on. And it’s amazing to watch that light turn on in those people who say: ‘Ok, I’m going to trust you.’


 

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring leaders in their field.

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