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Homeless below the Las Vegas Strip: where city’s vices exist in the shadows

Theres an even darker side to the gambling mecca a homeless community in underground tunnels that struggles with addiction

Broken glass crunched under shoes, alerting tunnel dwellers that outsiders had arrived. Deeper in the dark, squat-ceilinged space, 25ft below the Las Vegas strip, Kregg Nattrour rested on a pile of gutted mattress foam.

I wanted to make this my last month down here, he said. I cant handle another month of this.

Matt OBrien, a homeless advocate and writer who visits the tunnels twice a month, said Nattrour looked skinny; apparently casino trips prevented the 54-year-old from eating well. I gambled all my money! he complained.

Our flashlights shone on empty water bottles and jugs of urine on the tunnel floor; fidgeting as he spoke, Nattrour moaned about a man further in who pisses and shits where he sleeps.

Hundreds of homeless people live in Las Vegas flood channels the citys literal underbelly, according to homeless advocates. They include full-time wage workers, panhandlers and self-described hustlers.

They say theres no better place to be homeless than the Strip. Tourists drop money on the ground. Gamblers give winnings away, or leave slot machines loaded with credits. Sometimes people nod off at gaming machines, allowing men like Nattrour to withdraw cash vouchers on the sly.

Yet theres an obvious dark side to trolling Las Vegas for cash round-the-clock access to gambling, drinking and drugs .

I should have been out of here a couple months ago. I just got depressed, Nattrour said. I dont even drink, but I bought a cocktail. And the next thing I know, Im gambling. I spent $60 of my [social security] check on dope and over $600 playing slot machines.

After 16-years as a truck driver, Nattrour moved to Las Vegas when his wife died. Three months later, he was broke and homeless sleeping on, then under, the street. Ive had some problems since Ive been down here, he admitted. Last month I put $400 into a video poker machine, and I never got a four of a kind! It pissed me off so much. I hate losing, so then Im chasing that first forty bucks. I say fuck it, its only money!

OBrien gave him a sandwich, new socks and underwear. In 2007, OBrien published Beneath the Neon, a book about tunnel dwellers that he hoped would inspire the city or a nonprofit to help. Yet neither panned out.

God dont live here. Only me is painted on the wall near John Aitchesons camp near the tunnel mouth. Aitcheson, 59, sleeps there between his shifts at a Strip convenience store.

I could get an apartment, he said. But all my money would go to rent, food, electricity, water … By the time I was done thered be no money left over to do anything.

John
John Aitcheson sleeps in the tunnel between his shifts at a convenience store. Photograph: Dan Hernandez

Outside, an empty luggage case sat open in the sun. Aitcheson said a bus from California recently dumped two-dozen homeless people at a nearby McDonalds, many of whom headed straight for the shadows.

He and Nattrour both claimed that California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada regularly swap homeless. For his part, Aitcheson says he moved here by choice, from Orlando, to enjoy the citys vices. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you can gamble, drink, smoke, get hookers, he said. Whatever you want is here in Vegas.

Drug addiction is the most pernicious problem below ground, OBrien said, with tunnels often segregated by whether denizens prefer heroin, crack or meth.

Like Nattrour, Aitcheson prefers gambling. I dont know how many times Ive walked into a casino with $20, hit $600, and spent every dime of it playing every other machine in the house, he said.

Lori Flores, clinic manager at the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, is familiar with that cycle.

At the beginning, before I stopped gambling, it was the only thing that gave me relief, she said, talking about casinos. I went there to not feel. I went there to not deal with anything. I was definitely using it as an escape from problems.

So I would assume as a homeless person, someone that has pretty much hit rock bottom, they dont have anywhere else to turn. In their mind probably, whats the point. What I can do is take this $5 Ive made getting change from people and turn it into a $100,000 and get my home back, get my wife back, try to get my life back on track. But thats not the way it works.

Frank Parenti, HELP of Southern Nevadas behavioral health services manager, said: Its the underlining mental illness that has gone untreated thats the real issue.

There is a disproportionate number of mentally ill who are homeless, and addiction, as a co-occurring disorder, is a part of that. You have people that are using drugs to self-medicate.

At the other end of the tunnel, was a man they called Jazz. His camp was guarded by multiple trip wires, his bed elevated by shopping carts, and his eyes covered by sunglasses, even in the dark. Jazz lost his girlfriend, Sharon, to a flash flood in June one of three people to drown in the tunnels during a late night rainstorm.

Jazz:
Jazz: I make money any way that I can. Photograph: Dan Hernandez

The pair had relied on the credit hustle to get by, which entails finding slot machines with money on them. Jazz continues to survive off casinos by doing one hustle or another, as he put it. Clenching his jaw, he strung words together. I make money any way that I can. Except robbing somebody Im too old for that shit.

We walked out into the sun, where the ex-con said, some days are better than others, and some days are really good. He admitted that hes not above pulling hustles that require fleeing security. If the chase is on they got to catch me, and I got wheels.

Ascending the flood channel embankment required walking past Rest easy Sharon 6-30-2016, which Jazz had spray-painted within sight of a gold-tinted resort glimmering on the horizon. He went back to the tunnel, then, to rest in the dark until nightfall.

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