Writer Matt O'Brien interviews a tunnel resident named Travis. Photo by Florian Buettner.

What I’ve Learned in 20 Years of Writing About the Homeless in Las Vegas

Matt O’Brien’s interest in the homeless dates to the late 1980s and early ’90s, when he attended Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. It carried over to Las Vegas, where he moved in ’97 and covered homelessness as a freelancer and staffer for the now-defunct alt-weekly Las Vegas CityLife. While at CityLife, Matt co-wrote two stories about exploring the underground flood channels, which were later used as background for his book, Beneath the Neon. He went on to found community project Shine a Light, which helps people get out of the tunnels, and is currently interviewing former tunnel residents for a book tentatively titled Out of the Dark: Survival Stories from the Las Vegas Storm Drains.

Here are a few things Matt has learned about homelessness along the way.

They Don’t Want to Be Homeless

Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who orchestrated a reign of terror against the homeless from 1999 to 2011, was fond of saying that people on the streets want to be homeless. He was partly correct. No one, of course, grows up wanting to be homeless. However, once on the streets, some people choose to remain there, because they enjoy the freedom, don’t want to give up the drugs or alcohol, lack self-esteem or for some other reason. But—and this is what Goodman didn’t understand—they probably don’t want to remain homeless the rest of their lives. Eventually, they’ll hit rock bottom, and we should be there for them when they’re ready to make a change.

More Than 90 Percent Are Addicted to Drugs, Alcohol or Gambling

I’ve met very few sober non-gamblers on the streets of Las Vegas. More than 90 percent of the homeless that I’ve encountered here are addicted to drugs (crack, heroin and meth being the main ones), alcohol or gambling or some combination of the three. At times, it’s tough to tell where one addiction ends and the other begins. Many of these addicts have told me that gambling is the worst addiction of all, because of the false hope it creates and it’s available 24/7. (Sometimes the dope man is asleep or out of product.) This, however, does not mean the addiction caused them to become homeless. Oftentimes, the drug, alcohol or gambling is used to drown out a traumatic event or as an escape from their present predicament. A few homeless meth addicts have told me they use crystal just to have the energy to get through another day.

Writer Matt O’Brien interviews Eric, who has made a home in the dark tunnels. Photo by Florian Buettner.

The Census Numbers Are Low

Every year, Clark County conducts a census of the homeless. The most recent, released in 2016, counted 6,200 homeless in the county. I believe the actual number is more than 10,000.

I’ve participated in the census and, while well meaning, it’s a bit of a shit show. It’s conducted in the middle of the night during the week in January, which discourages volunteers. Those who do show are tasked with covering a large tract of land in a short period of time. Also, at night in January, the homeless are burrowed in and less visible to the volunteers or perhaps temporarily off the streets.

Are you seeing fewer homeless than you did a year ago, five years ago, ten? While the jargon-filled, 200-page-plus census suggests otherwise, my eyes are telling me the numbers are surging. (We’ve made progress with vets and tunnel residents, but they make up a small percentage of the population.) I see homeless at nearly every park, intersection, convenience store, drug store and fast-food restaurant in the central valley, and they seem more prominent in the suburbs as well. And those are just the visible homeless. The goal is to remain invisible—out of sight, out of the back of the police cruiser. Think of all the people living in cars, abandoned buildings, foreclosed homes, underground flood channels and weekly motels and on undeveloped plots of desert.

The latest census is expected to be released soon, and word on the street is it will show a slight increase. Whatever the numbers, the actual ones are higher.

Few Charities Provide Housing and Services

Some charities feature soup kitchens, others overnight shelters, or perhaps day lockers and mail services. This is a gracious gesture, but permanent housing is what the homeless of the valley need most. The housing has to be supplemented by services: drug counseling, mental-health counseling, medical care, etc. Yet few charities offer housing and services. The short, distinguished list includes HELP of Southern Nevada, U.S. VETS, the Salvation Army and the Shade Tree. Many of these charities have limited caseloads and strict qualifications; you have to be either a veteran, senior citizen, woman, drug addict, or mentally or terminally ill. If you do qualify, the wait can exceed six months.

Most of Them Are Not Mentally Ill

It’s convenient to say that most homeless people are mentally ill. In my opinion, it’s often used as an excuse for our failures to actively address and get involved in the issue. We couldn’t help these people if we wanted to, we seem to be suggesting— they’re crazy!

The hard truth is only a small percentage of the local homeless population is severely mentally ill. I’ve walked hundreds of miles of underground flood channels and spoken to hundreds of people in the concrete asylums—and I can’t recall one person who was so angry or delusional or antisocial that they couldn’t hold a conversation with me. I have, of course, encountered depression, mood swings and reclusiveness, but they could be attributed to drug use or life on the streets, which brings up a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did mental illness cause this person to become homeless or did homelessness cause this person to become mentally ill?

Regardless of the answer, the screaming, shirtless stereotype makes up a very small percentage of the population. Most of them think and act a lot like you and I.

Writer Matt O’Brien. Photo by Danny Mollohan.

They’re Not Lazy

Six days a week, Eric, who lived in a storm drain near the Orleans, would climb on to his bike and pedal his regular recycling route. He’d dumpster-dive, sort the items in the tunnel (with a headlamp on), then bike them to a recycling center—all of which could take up to 15 hours—and make around $100 a day. His neighbor Charlie worked full-time at an auto shop.

“Everyone in that tunnel worked hard,” says Eric, who’s now housed and employed as a cook in Texas. “No one flew a sign (panhandled).”

In addition to their work, Eric and Charlie had to avoid the cops (who often harass the homeless), keep their camps clean and prepare for floods. All this, oftentimes, in extreme temperatures.

Call the homeless what you will, but don’t call them lazy. (You’re the one using UberEATS and sitting on the couch watching TV.) They’re the toughest, most industrious people I’ve met. Their survival depends on it.

Panhandlers Use the Money You Give Them to Fed Their Addiction

Occasionally, someone asks if I think it’s a good idea to give money to panhandlers. My response usually goes like this: It’s a personal choice and you should do whatever you feel is right. Personally, I choose to not give money to panhandlers, because most of them use it to support their habit (drugs, alcohol and/or gambling).

The homeless can get water from spigots or drinking fountains, and soft drinks from the soda fountains of fast-food restaurants. (They keep a cup handy and fill it at their leisure without paying.) They can get food from soup kitchens or dumpsters or steal it. It usually takes cash to score drugs or gamble.

Instead of giving money, I keep bottled water, snacks, socks and underwear in my car and offer those instead. Or, if we’re near a store or restaurant, I’ll offer to buy them something.

Small Things Can Have a Big Impact on Their Lives

I once assumed it took thousands of dollars to help a homeless person. What I’ve learned is that seemingly small things can have a big impact on their lives. Introduce yourself to them, shake their hand (no matter how dirty it is), ask how their day is going. Do not lecture them; they’ve heard enough of that. Do not try to bullshit them; their detectors are fine-tuned. Be positive. Encourage them. Buy them flowers. Dance for them.

They’re uniquely appreciative, and I’ve seen “small” acts such as these lift their spirits and boost their confidence. They can even inspire them to make a change.

Vegas Seven