Storm-sewer dwellers of Las Vegas

The UK Sun (an admittedly sensationalist source) claims that hundreds of people are living in the storm sewers beneath Las Vegas, scraping by on coins left in slot machines. The underground community is documented in a recent book called Beneath the Neon.

It is estimated the population of the underground community could be as many as 700. As well as credit-hustling, they earn their money off the wildly excessive city above by begging and "dumpster diving" - raiding bins and skips.

There are around 350 miles of flood channels running under Las Vegas. Most inhabitants are in the area under the city's strip.

Another couple, Amy and JR, have lived in the tunnels for two years, having moved to Las Vegas in search of work, wealth and a slice of the famous Sin City action.

Putting down the Twilight vampire book she is reading for the third time, Amy, 33, explains: "My husband and I have been down here two years this week.

"We were living with my mom in California but the house was full and we had to leave.

"I heard Las Vegas was a good place for jobs. It's the city that never sleeps, with all the bright lights, and I'd always wanted to come.

"But it was tough and we started living under the staircase outside the MGM casino. Then we met a guy who lived in the tunnels. We've been down here ever since.

Lost Vegas (Thanks, Bas!)



  1. As cool as this is, this article is blowing up their squat, the more sunlight this gets the hotter the heat will be on all these people’s illegal housing. Presumable the Vegas PD doesn’t care enough to bust them, in my experience it’s almost never because they just didn’t know that cops bust up this kind of thing, it’s always public pressure or political motivation.

    This kind of article only gives them a reason.

  2. …scraping by on coins left in slot machines.

    Considering that most of the slots in Vegas ditched coins in favor of credit slips several years go, this is quite a feat.

    1. Do you know how many people fail to pick up their credit slip from their slot, either because they’re too drunk or absent-minded, or distracted. I’ve collected quite a few of them over the years…

  3. @ MONIKER42
    I’m sure that the rain that falls in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, but makes it way to the ocean eventually :)

  4. There was a post here from Xeni two years ago — — about a book on the Vegas storm drain system and the wonders to be found there. Excerpts appeared in a local Vegas indy paper:

    …so while maybe the standard of living of the subterraneans has gotten a bit more elaborate, I’m sure this isn’t a new discovery for the local media.

  5. This has got to be fake.

    The article quotes Americans using the word, ‘skip’ instead of dumpster. Not convinced – NO American uses the word ‘skip’ to mean a dumpster. If you used that word in their presence you would be met with blank stares…

  6. British media regularly convert USSpeak to UKSpeak when quoting people. It’s disreputable, but even the BBC does it.

  7. The reason I call BS: Even if everything we see is true, I have a strong sensation that violence, murder, and particularly rape are fare more prevalent in these lawless, drug-induced tunnels than one would expect based on the report.

  8. ian, you’re just showing your preconceived [and wrong i might add] prejudices that just because a person is homeless [either by circumstance or choice] they somehow become drug crazed killing machines. when is the last time you actually acknowledged a homeless person, let alone considered them a fellow human being.

  9. Steve is fucking speeding. I watched his mannerisms and having done my fair share of speed, it seems pretty obvious.

  10. People have been doing this for centuries, the extent of which has been sensationalized for at least as long. If you aren’t familiar you should check out the book The Mole People by Jennifer Toth, who actually explored the tunnels and befriended those who would give her a chance.

    Some of her stories are also said to be false or exaggerated, but much of it is 100% true and quite an interesting read.

  11. HPAVC: Don’t assume those modern comforts are so hard to come by. Many of these tunnels stay dry for months and months and even when they do get wet some drains just don’t receive the flow. And electricity and sometimes even plumbing do find their way down there, in the film Dark Days people are shown hijacking power for electric shavers and using carefully broken water pipes to shower. Cold, granted, but clean water and free electricity if you’re crafty. If I was a grifter and relying on people’s charity I would probably shave clean, too.

  12. What does ‘credit hustle’ mean in Vegas slang ie what is the actual def. There are many different scams defined by that.

  13. This subject was also featured on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Americana’ programme a couple of weeks ago, including an interview with a tunnel dweller.

    It’s still available to listen here. (I think BBC radio is available worldwide on the ‘iplayer’, unlike BBC TV).

  14. CANTFIGHTTHEDITE @7 I’m sure that the rain that falls in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, but makes it way to the ocean eventually :)

    Yes, via the storm sewers. I doubt it happens often, but when it does I’m sure it’s one heck of a flood. That would be my main concern about living in a storm sewer.

  15. I haven’t seen a slot machine that dispenses coins in several years. I think they all went to the printed slips and a sound effect generator that sounds like coins falling into a bucket. Maybe there’s a few coin machines left but I haven’t seen them. The paper slips take most of the fun out of it for me so I almost never play anymore.

  16. A few weeks ago on BBC radio 4 there was a segment about this. The BBC reporter was out with a guy from Las Vegas who roams the storm drains at will, and he was explaining about who he meets as he travels the tunnels, and actually introducing the reporter to some of the inhabitants. I think it was in the same program about the drug gangs of Toronto.

  17. #2 – Out of sight, and out of mind, like the sewer mutants in Futurama. If they had set up a tent city within eyeshot of the Strip, you can bet the cops would have broken it up long ago, but these people are underground. People don’t see them, so they don’t care.

  18. #12 – There are several dialects of American English. Consider that “cart”, “buggy”, “basket”, and “bascart” are all words used to describe a shopping cart in various parts of the USA. While the article was written by the British tabloid press, it is easy to accept that a Dumpster (yes, it’s capitalized, since it is a brand name) might be called a “skip” in the southwestern US.

  19. So why does Vegas have such a higher capacity storm drain system than it needs, that people can actually live inside it and stay dry? Corrupt contract awarding?

    1. Moriarty,

      Here in Palm Springs, it rains a couple of times per year. And it’s quite common to have severe flooding.

  20. So why does Vegas have such a higher capacity storm drain system than it needs, that people can actually live inside it and stay dry? Corrupt contract awarding?

    It’s because storm drains are designed for what is called a “one hundred year flood”. Meaning that any given year there is a one percent chance that it will get used to capacity. Not that that keeps two such floods from happening in the same year, or none for a hundred years. It’s like gambling.

  21. @Moriarty:

    In the desert, when it does happen to rain, the rain doesn’t gently seep into the soil, because there is no soil, just hard sand. Nearly all the rain ends up in surface flows, and there’s a LOT of it.

  22. @6 (Spencer Cross): Not only that, but from what I observed the last time I was there (before credit slips), I’d guess that in the first 50 years of slot machines in Vegas about $1.15 in spare change was accidentally left behind in slot machines.

    The blackjack players might tip the dealer $100 out of a night’s winnings of $120, but the slots players are SERIOUS mothers.

  23. It’s because storm drains are designed for what is called a “one hundred year flood”. Meaning that any given year there is a one percent chance that it will get used to capacity. Not that that keeps two such floods from happening in the same year, or none for a hundred years. It’s like gambling.

    You’re right, of course. Duh. So this means there’s about a 1% chance every year the sewer dwellers will get flushed. Not odds I’d like, but I guess it’s still better than a lot of beach houses.

  24. @Steaming Pile #29: I might buy that if I hadn’t lived in the southwestern US for most of my life. Nobody calls ’em “skips.”

    As for the coins, there were still plenty of coin slots last time I was in Vegas (I think 4 years ago or so). Maybe they’ve ditched them since, but it would have been pretty recent.

    On another note, shouldn’t a properly sensationalist paper like the Sun refer to these people as “morlocs?”

  25. The caption on the photo in the article mentions “the Strip” but Vegas Vic (pictured in the photo) is and always has been on Fremont Street, not Las Vegas Blvd.

  26. Proxient: I don’t think anybody would imply that being homeless automaticly makes one a drug-abusing batshit crazy. But drug-abusing batshit crazies are often homeless, and it only takes one or two to make life around them quite unpleasent. That’s a big part of WHY many homeless people don’t want to stay in shelters. Crazies or the strict rules designed to control them.

  27. I certainly believe some people live there, but 700? Wow. That’s hard to swallow. Could be true, but dang.

    It’s worth noting that all the articles linked to about this are based on the same guy’s work. Not that it’s a problem, but he would be feeding them figures so if his numbers are off, all the articles will be off.

    Las Vegas is the kind of place that breeds homelessness. (Gambling is very-very bad for lower income people. Well, really not great for any economic class but it hits the lower levels the hardest.) It’s also a really horrifically hostile environment in which to be homeless. My take on it was that the environment was saying “F- YOU, PEOPLE STAY AWAY!” but for some reason we’ve gone to incredible lengths to enable relatively comfortable living there. (A/c, massive aqueducts, etc.)

  28. I think there are storm sewer dwellers in Dearborn Michigan as well. A couple of days ago I walked out of Men’s Wearhouse in downtown Dearborn I was enveloped in the smell of marijuana emanating from a curbside grate. There was no remotely near me at street level. It was obviously coming from the sewer. Must be a depressing place to get high.

  29. If the conditions are comfortable and the food is plentiful, then it sounds like a pretty sweet gig. That’s a big ‘if’, however.

  30. #37 – gambling isn’t bad for poor people or anyone else. the problem is gambling with more than you can afford to lose, no matter what your income bracket.

  31. @ Dculberson:

    If you can find a way to stay out of the sun it’s not such a bad place to be homeless as such things go. I’d rather be on the street during a Vegas summer than a Minneapolis winter.

  32. For the record, storm drains are not sewers. Sewers convey wastewater, i.e., whatever comes out of your house. Storm drains convey water that falls onto the ground and then into the drains. In many cities, including Las Vegas, they are separate systems. Some older cities (not Vegas) have combined sewer systems, but these generally have more water quality problems than separated systems. Living in a sewer would be much nastier than living in a storm drain.

    The US EPA has a map of where there are communities with combined sewer systems:

  33. They are storm drains, but their purpose is not to prevent flooding.

    Their purpose is to transport precious rainwater beneath the city from the Las Vegas Wash to the Lake Mead reservoir with a minimum of loss.

    The city then pumps the water it uses out of Lake Mead.

  34. This is tough.
    Here, if you’re homeless… really tough. At least they have a place where they can disappear to. The homeless are drawn here, due to a mild climate (though summers here are horribly humid). Lately, though, throughout the state, there seems to be some hidden pogrom being carried out against the homeless, which, considering the recent boom in abandoned buildings… not going there.
    What worries me now is that the plight of these drain dwellers has just been sensationalized, packaged and published. Soon, I fear, some city bureaucrat, will read about this and want something done.
    My concern is that the solution will not be a good one.

  35. @4

    I was in Vegas a few years ago for my 21st birthday (something I’ll never do again, because it’s in the SUMMER).

    It briefly, lightly, rained one evening of the trip. It wasn’t even bad enough you’d need an umbrella. (Even if you did, you wouldn’t, because you’ll dry out fast when it’s above 110F AT NIGHT)

    The end result, was a rampaging river, a mankiller if you get caught in it, that I saw flowing near a parking structure of the Imperial Palace. If you’ve seen any video footage of the recent Los Angeles water main breaks, imagine something worse.

    If you are in those storm drains, and it rains, you’re dead, simple as that.

  36. Strangely enough, this article neglects to mention the four chelonians and the ROUS with certain martial skills that bunk in with Amy and JR. You’d think they’d notice something like that.

  37. Beanolini – “I think BBC radio is available worldwide on the ‘iplayer’, unlike BBC TV.”

    I pay enough on license fees to cover the free radio, not sure I’d like paying for some dude in another country having free TV, too. ;)

    “We went to watch a show, then to McDonald’s for dinner. We got a little bit drunk and did the other normal wedding day things… ”

    Aah the timeless wedding day norm. S’good to know these tunnel dwellers still appreciate tradition.

  38. I have read “The Mole People” and investigated it. It is so full of BS that it isn’t worth reading. A shame because it is a compelling story…even if the quality of writing is atrocious.

    “The Mole People” consists of half-truths and exaggerations combined with 3rd-hand stories retold by paranoid schizophrenics. Maybe she believed it at the time and retold it as first-hand. Maybe she knew they were lies. We’ll never know because she isn’t telling.

    Still, she describes all sorts of fantastical places that the amateur NYC subway-hounds assure me don’t exist. And, that is only the tip of the iceberg on Ms. Toth.

    As for this story. It is probably the same thing going on. My baloney detector is going off. Exaggerated numbers. Exaggerated stories. Taking mentally ill people for their word and retelling third-hand facts in the first person. Etc.

    Think about the on-the-ground logistics in regards to the amount of waste (material and feces) 700 people would generate down there. Think about fires, fights, crime, etc. My gut tells me there are 50 people, total living this life down there…many coming and going over time.

  39. As usual, everyone thinks they’re a civil engineer. You’re not, I am. Storm sewers are sewers, sanitary sewers are sewers. Combined sewers are illegal under EPA regulations and are more often refered to as CSOs. Vegas, LA and other places where rain is scarce, design larger than normally needed sewers to do just what the Unusual Suspect suggests, collect as much rain water as possible. However, having witnessed one heck of a rain storm in Vegas, those sewers are not oversized. They tend to flow full during rain events. Thus, the cozy habitat in the posted photo would have been washed straight out to Lake Mead. It could be deadly if you were sleeping when the storm hit.

    Anon @ 44: the storm sewers in Wayne County are designed to take 10-yr flows and inlets tend to be 2′ in diameter and 3 to 5 feet deep. It would have to be one tiny, but super strong weed smoker in there – the grates on inlets weigh about 80 lbs. More likely, you passed a recently tossed roach.

  40. Catfight @7: No, it doesn’t go to the ocean. It goes to LA, Vegas, Phoenix and other desert cities. A tiny trickle of water actually flows out of the Colorado River into the Gulf of Baja. Once firtile fishing and farming land in Mexico is now nasty salt marsh.

  41. Just because combined sewer systems are illegal doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Wilmington, Delaware for example has one; if it rains hard enough turds float out into the Brandywine river. I’ve seen it myself.

    I’ve also spent a little time under the city of Philadelphia, and while I can attest that a truly staggering number of people live down there, a very high percentage of them are so severely mentally disturbed that their stories are not trustworthy.

  42. Those people living in those tunnels are risking certain death. Just a little bit of rain can result into instant flooding in those tunnels. Drowning is unavoidable if living in there for an extended amount of time.

  43. Nice to see that two thirds of the commenters commented BEFORE READING THE DAMN ARTICLE OR WATCHING THE VIDEO, which answered most of the questions… I’m getting more disappointed with the level of discussion here.

  44. I call BS on this:
    1. I’ve seen rainfall in Vegas. It’s rare, but when it happens, those storm drains fill up in a matter of minutes.
    2. Clean bedding, and carefully arranged belongings, even though they’re surrounded by dirty standing water.

    Also, for some reason, the quotes at the end of the article aren’t believable. Maybe they’re paraphrased.

  45. Actually, that’s not a bad looking room, but I really wouldn’t want to be down there the one day every few years that Vegas gets actual rain.

  46. @moriarity

    Flash Floods. You need overcapacity when a monsoon thunderstorm decides to be a little too stationary.

  47. What happens to all their stuff when the once a year storm hits? I guess mattresses will dry out, eventually, but most of their crap is getting broken/flushed out. Note their stuff is all on top of those purple eggcrates – they’re living with about an inch of water moving under them. Any area big enough to stand up in, is probably always going to have water in it. The dry areas, unless the sewer was improperly designed, will always be the smaller 2-3′ diameter pipes.

  48. Skeptics! You can laugh all you want at the Mole People, but it isn’t wise. ANONYMOUS is almost entirely made up of their technocratic guru caste; they can steal power and bandwidth USING THEIR MINDS. Bwah-hah-hah-hah!

  49. IRONEDITHKIDD wrote:
    As usual, everyone thinks they’re a civil engineer. You’re not, I am. Storm sewers are sewers, sanitary sewers are sewers. Combined sewers are illegal under EPA regulations and are more often refered to as CSOs.

    Sacramento has a combined sewer system (still) in the older part of town. Basically, the whole downtown area. During the warmer parts of the year, like NOW, the smell wafting out of the storm drains can be quite… pungent.

    Nay, you say? See page 11, with map on page 12:

    In any event, I wouldn’t want to be in a Las Vegas storm sewer when the rare flash flood hits. An unpleasant place to live, an even more unpleasant place to die.

  50. There could well be that many people living in the storm sewers. The storm sewers run throughout the whole valley, not just under the strip. There are several collection basins around where you could just walk in if you wanted to.
    Every time homeless people gather in one place, police evict them. This city is very unfriendly to the homeless. They probably won’t get hassled as much in the storm sewers, as they won’t be visible to tourists.

  51. “The Mole People” consists of half-truths and exaggerations combined with 3rd-hand stories retold by paranoid schizophrenics.

    Won’t bother reading it then, I can get all that in the pub.

  52. In a way, I don’t understand.

    I take it for granted that this is a furnished space in a storm water drain.

    From the photo, they seem pretty ‘normal’ (ie not off their faces, highly scarey, not mentally unsound etc etc). I’d say they have a nice sharehouse room set up – milk crate furniture, futon (with slats!) set high, bedsheets, trinkets, WARDROBES ….

    a) how did they get that stuff all the way down there? Who, how, what did they transport it all in.
    b) if the drains are a Mad Max type land, why is all their stuff intact and seemingly open. They’ve even installed a doorway

    It seems they have done it to ‘save money’. That is to say, they have no other skills to use other than working in Las Vegas, and then on the other hand, they have no money, so they put their life on the line to save that money.

    So, out comes the storms every 99.9 years, and they know about it in advance. I would imagine they have escape routes that can be quickly used with bags packed, and not giving a shit about any of their furniture. I imagine they watch the Weather Channel (for free of course) to keep up to date. If it looks like its coming, they are gone.

    Otherwise, at the end of the drain awaits the Judging Panel for the Darwin Awards with their clipboards.

    Similar to joining the army (deployable soldiers) to get through college. What’s the use of doing that if you’re just fodder for vultures in the end. A dead soldier with an M.A. is the same as one with only a leaving certificate. (yes, I’m sure it’s not as straightforward as that, but it does happen).

    I think a proper psych-balancing session with money may help them generally in life.

  53. Another source for this story and an interview with the author of Beneath the Neon:

    Those of you who are hating on people who are homeless have obviously never known someone who is homeless or worked with that population. Just a couple of things:

    – While some people are removed from shelters for behavior, most shelters have a maximum number of days you can stay there, some as short as two weeks, and once you have reached that max there is usually a certain amount of time that has to pass (it varies from place to place) before you can return. Being both homeless and incapable of living in the local shelter is not unusual. Of course ideally one would move straight from the shelter to permanent housing, but how long it takes to set this up varies from person to person.

    – Homelessness isn’t necessarily about having no money at all; it’s usually about how much money you have at any one time, specifically in terms of making rent. Many of the people I have worked with could afford to feed and cloth themselves throughout the month or to pay rent at the end of the month, but not both. To suppose that people who can’t afford a roof over their heads also can’t afford any material possessions is a fallacy.

  54. I just finished reading this book and it was really interesting! About half of the book was just descriptions of the tunnels and superficial history lessons and the other half was conversations with people living in the tunnels (I the latter best.) I was surprised by how many people (that the author interviewed) were Vietnam vets. Definitely worth read!

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