Living under Las Vegas

Steve, right, and his girlfriend Kathryn (they asked that their last names and ages not be used) lie in their large bed in a storm drainage tunnel under the city of Las Vegas. The pair, who have one of the more elaborate encampments among the tunnel-dwellers, have many of the comforts of a real home, but lack electricity and running water. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

He already lived in the shadows, if you could call it living.

Most days, for nearly four years, Glenn Harrington foraged for money, smoked marijuana and methamphetamine, and searched for somewhere to crash: a buddy's couch, a deck chair at the Tropicana pool, behind a sign advertising the airport. Last year, after police rousted him and a friend from the sign, they ran into a homeless guy who directed them to the tunnels.

Beneath the glossy Strip and a vast expanse of suburbs in the arid Las Vegas Valley are hundreds of miles of crisscrossing flood-control tunnels that stay dry most of the year. The tunnels are thought to shelter about 300 vagabonds from the Mojave Desert's unrelenting weather.

The pitch-black passages breed mosquitoes and, where shallow pools of water collect, even crayfish. They reek of sodden trash and urine.

But in the tunnels, you can disappear. And for a time, Harrington desperately wanted to disappear.

So, last fall, he and his friend Thomas Kruse headed over to a culvert west of the Strip leading into the tunnels. For a few nights they slumbered outside. They started plying the handful of tunnel residents with weed and, eventually, were given the OK to move in.

Harrington paid two guys $20 each to lug a red leather couch from a nearby apartment complex into an offshoot of the main corridor, nicknamed the Caesars tunnel. His new neighbors included a man who decorated the concrete walls with pages torn from nudie magazines and a couple who had hauled in a studio apartment's worth of furniture.

Harrington waded into the darkness. He squinted. At the time, he couldn't see any clear way out.

The vast majority of the Las Vegas region's homeless population, estimated at more than 13,000, favors the typical homeless haunts -- cars, abandoned buildings, parks. They find tunnel-dwellers disquieting: What drives someone underground?

Some stay awhile, then struggle to get out. Some never leave.

Harrington, 44, is a slight, affable man with brown eyes, receding dark hair and a nervous laugh. The youngest of eight kids in Buffalo, N.Y., he joined his mom and a sister here almost three decades ago. He worked at casinos and once was promoted to assistant food and beverage manager. He had a girlfriend and a daughter, Caylee, and liked the desert's ceaseless sunshine.

But the relationship was tempestuous. Money was tight: For years, Harrington had taken and quit jobs -- and occasionally left town -- on a whim. He often ended up on the couch of a sister, playing both the kind uncle her kids adored and the wayward soul who pleaded for money, then vanished.

As he tells it, his girlfriend, who was wrestling with her own addictions, left him and their daughter; her mother eventually took Caylee, then 3, with her back to Montana. He went there to fight for custody, but lost, and returned to Vegas a woeful man. He started blowing money on drugs and slot machines and eventually ended up on the streets.

Other residents of the tunnels tell similarly glum stories, if they share them at all. Part of the tunnels' appeal is a tacit code that your past sins may remain unspoken.

The passageways begin in a number of low-lying spots around town, including near the iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. Many tunnels are the size of hallways, with cobwebbed ceilings and the occasional pool of ankle-deep water. Las Vegas averages only 4 inches of rain a year, but floodwater can blast through so quickly that, when storm clouds loom, some residents temporarily clear out.

The labyrinthine corridors are eerily hushed. Your conversation will arrive at the end of a tunnel far before you do, which offers residents some peace of mind. Approaching footsteps can stir panic: Is it the police? A drug dealer with a grudge?

Encampments are sometimes littered with the plastic bags and party balloons synonymous with meth and cocaine. The only light comes from flashlights or the sun streaming through street grates.

The light that sneaks through illuminates walls inked with graffiti: bubble letters, bare-chested women, thoughts morose and poetic. In the Caesars tunnel, someone scrawled: Thank you for the knowledge of heartbreak.

Most days, after Harrington and the others woke up, they made their way into the blinding sun and hustled for dope and food -- usually, by "silver-mining." They hovered at casinos, hoping slot players left them credits to play or winnings to cash. Back in the tunnel, Harrington couldn't bear the shame of stealing or, even worse, the fading memories of Caylee, whom he hadn't spoken to in years. So he smoked his troubles away. Or tried to.