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Cynthia Goodwin, 46, greets her husband, Richard Ethridge, 39, with a smile as they meet inside the underground storm drain tunnels east of the Las Vegas Strip near Tropicana in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. Goodwin and her husband have been living in the tunnels for over two years. (Mona Shield Payne for the Globe and Mail)
Cynthia Goodwin, 46, greets her husband, Richard Ethridge, 39, with a smile as they meet inside the underground storm drain tunnels east of the Las Vegas Strip near Tropicana in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. Goodwin and her husband have been living in the tunnels for over two years. (Mona Shield Payne for the Globe and Mail)

CITIES

What it’s like to live in a sewer below the bright lights of Vegas Add to ...

The flood came without warning. Perhaps it was runoff from nearby Mount Charleston, or buildup from a rare day of desert rain. A wall of water, head-high, rushed through one of the storm tunnels that run beneath Las Vegas. Seconds later, everything Richard Ethridge and Cynthia Goodwin owned was swept away. As had been the case before, and will almost certainly be the case again, the married couple barely made it out alive.

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“I almost lost her,” Mr. Ethridge, 39, says, his wife sitting beside him on a sheet of foam bedding, their subterranean home lit only by a couple of candles in broken glass jars. “She was in another tunnel holding on to her bike. The water was so strong it ripped the front tire off the bike.”

The Las Vegas Boulevard strip is perhaps the glitziest and most distinctive stretch of real estate in the world, synonymous with blinding neon lights and gaudy excess. It regularly draws millions of tourists, big-name celebrities and massive conventions.

But the city around the strip has the fourth-highest homelessness rate and the highest home foreclosure rate of any big city in the country. As a result, many of its estimated 12,000 homeless people have built makeshift shelters in the city’s 480 kilometres of underground storm tunnels. The result is a subtropolis where the poorest and most maligned can escape the desert heat and cold, even as they risk disease and drowning.

The network of tunnels dates back to the late 1980s, when local and state governments attempted to flood-proof the area. Homeless people began seeking shelter there about 15 years ago, in part prompted by a growing crackdown on the Las Vegas homeless population. The city passed ordinances that, among other things, made it illegal to offer food to “the indigent” in public parks.

“Vegas has built up a reputation as one of the meanest cities towards the homeless,” says Matthew O’Brien, a writer who runs a charity called Shine a Light that provides help to the people living there.

But for many of its residents, the tunnel network offers advantages over the city’s streets. In the summer, the tunnels can be several degrees cooler than the surface, and in the winter, they are warmer. Made of concrete blocks three metres wide and 1.8 metres tall, they also protect against bursts of desert wind.

But the same structures are deadly. Las Vegas sees only about 11 centimetres of rainfall annually – but when the water does arrive, it builds up quickly, rising as much as 30 centimetres a minute as it races through the drains. As a result, Las Vegas also sees roughly one drowning each year in the flood channels.

“The last great wash was four months ago; it wiped me out,” says John Aitcheson, a 53-year-old Florida native who says he has spent the past two years living underground in Vegas. “It took my shopping cart straight to Lake Mead.”

Mr. Aitcheson’s home is a tunnel at the end of a natural wash less than a kilometre south of the strip. Immediately to the west are the immaculate greens of the Bali Hai Golf Club. On the other side of the street is the VIP terminal at McCarran Airport. All day, the private jets create an overbearing roar and golf course sprinklers send a stream of water that leaves the tunnel floor permanently damp.

With no natural light , the cramped tunnel where Mr. Aitcheson lives is mostly pitch-black. The sides of the walls are lined with soot from deliberate and accidental fires. Mounds of cigarette butts line the ground, proximal to the half-dozen or so encampments of the people who live here. The air is pungent , a mixture of cigarette smoke and urine.

At the end of the wash, the tunnel splits in two. The residents use one tunnel as a living space and the other as a trash can and toilet. Whenever the rain comes, it tends to clean the tunnels of waste, something the residents call “flushing the toilet.”

Despite the obvious risks of disease, drowning and even scorpion bites, some tunnel residents have turned their living areas into a home. One recent afternoon, in a storm drain five kilometres east of the strip, Mr. Ethridge and Ms. Goodwin are rebuilding. A day earlier, city workers cleared out the tunnel, as they do several times a year, taking the couple’s queen-size bed and many other belongings. In less than 24 hours, the couple found new bedding, built a couch out of milk crates and salvaged supplies from trash cans at a nearby Burlington Coat Factory.

The walls bear the marks of countless people who called this place home. Almost every space is covered in graffiti – poems, profanity, murals of visiting aliens. Inside the couple’s bedroom, Ms. Goodwin has painted a fake window on one of the walls – a sunny square with rolling green hills. Just outside the bedroom, a slow drip of black water lands from a vent in the ceiling, the result of a broken sewer pipe.

Like many people struggling with poverty, the couple have few means of escape . For a while, they say, they lived in an apartment, until discovering their landlord was simply changing the locks on foreclosed homes and renting them out.

“It’s hard to get a job when you’ve got no address,” says Ms. Goodwin, a tiny 46-year-old who occasionally works as a housekeeper. “We can give them a cell number, but you don’t get reception down here.”

The couple have also developed survival skills . They stagger a row of tin cans down the back of the tunnel. When the rain approaches, the cans tumble, making noise and giving them advance warning. They get by. They are in love.

“We’ve been married for almost 12 years and I still look at him all goofy,” Ms. Goodwin says.

Still, like all the people living below the bright lights of Vegas, they know the next time it rains, much of what they have will be gone.

“Anything we can’t get out to the top, we watch float away,” Mr. Ethridge says.

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