Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Rob Banghart’s first step out of the homeless camps in the flood control channels under Las Vegas came at the business end of a pipe, cracked against his jaw during a drug transaction gone awry.
He estimates that there are 1,400 to 1,500 people still living in the enclosed channels — the tunnels — that crisscross Las Vegas to divert rainwater and runoff.
Using the 215 Beltway for perspective, he said, on the roughly 15 miles from Durango Drive to Henderson, there’s an encampment at every offramp. That’s just on one freeway.
Banghart started going into the tunnels about two years ago with like-minded people from Shine a Light, a locally based volunteer organization that offers a small meal, inexpensive flashlights and the promise of detox and a stable home above ground.
In the beginning, about five people with backpacks went below ground. Now they send in four or five squads, upwards of 25 people total, every weekend around town, and are building relationships with other nonprofits.
In 2018, when Banghart started, crews persuaded about 15 people to leave the tunnels. The next year they brought up 40. This year, he said, they’ve surpassed that already, even with the hindrance of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Banghart said that returning as a helper healed the trauma he suffered there over the years, and it brings him to people who might not see a way out, like he once did.
“I knew I owed,” he said. “I wanted to help people.”
Paul Vautrinot, another Shine a Light volunteer, said nothing the outreach teams bring the tunnel residents enables them — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich only goes so far. But the rubber bracelets that they pass out with the phone number of CrossRoads, the detox facility he works at, are seeds.
He said very few people truly embrace homeless culture. Most are simply scared to leave what they know. There’s a devil they know, and a devil they don’t, and many people have tried to leave before, he said.
“We throw a rope out,” said Dave Marlon, CrossRoads’ chief executive. “If they grab it, we’ll pull them in.”
This is what keeps people like Banghart, Vautrinot and Marlon tirelessly going below ground, in hopes of bringing at least one person up.
• • •
The executive: Dave
Light on his feet and toting a backpack full of wrapped burritos and packets of the opioid antagonist Naloxone with “OD KIT” stamped on them in large white letters, Dave Marlon ventured into a tunnel as dark as pitch under the former Hard Rock Hotel. It was choked in spots with garbage and tinkling with filthy runoff water.
He’s optimistic yet realistic in his search for people he can persuade to get clean at CrossRoads.
Not too many years ago, Marlon had a career in traditional health care administration. He also had an addiction, primarily to alcohol, then a personal epiphany, then a professional one.
He came to CrossRoads, a residential detox for Las Vegas’ indigent population, earlier this year and said he brought it back from the brink of insolvency, drawing on the experience he had building up his previous company, Solutions Recovery.
Marlon, a New York native, moved to Vegas in 1987 to work for an insurance company. He said he was shocked to learn that Nevadans like him, needing residential substance abuse treatment, had to leave the state.
After earning sobriety in 2005, he made the change to being a leader in detox. He considered it a calling.
His turning point was when he wanted to get away from his then-3-year-old son so he could get intoxicated on his birthday. The boy was innocent, and Marlon knew that. He decided to go to rehab.
He said he would have once described himself as a functioning addict.
“I also would have described myself as not hurting or affecting anyone,” Marlon said. “Once I got clean and was able to look back at my behavior in my life, I realized it affected everyone I was in contact with.”
His son is now 19 and has never seen Marlon drunk or high.
Not long after his return from rehab in California, he tried to address the need for residential treatment here by starting Solutions Recovery. He expanded it to 400 beds before selling it in 2016.
Earlier this year, he took the top position at CrossRoads at a fraction of his prior salary. While more residential facilities have opened in the last 15 years, there are still few options for indigent people.
Marlon sees CrossRoads as a professional medical facility, not a flophouse. The full program is 75 days, with gradually relaxed restrictions for clients. His French bulldog, Biggie Smalls, walks two laps around the building every day and greets residents.
He said CrossRoads admits about 15 people a day, but only one or two people a month from the tunnels.
Still, he persists. He often runs into people he helped at Solutions in his daily life.
“I get reminders every day that the next person I talk to could be my five-year success story in five years,” he said.
• • •
The nurse: Liz
Liz Smith didn’t set out to be a nurse. She wanted to be an architect, like her dad.
She studied architecture at UNLV and worked at her father’s firm. But it didn’t feel right. Then, she shadowed a neighbor who worked at University Medical Center, and found her career.
About seven years ago her nursing agency assigned her to another Las Vegas detox facility, Desert Hope, and she knew that would be her specialty.
People in rehab are not at their best but there are victories along the way, like graduating from therapy classes or reconnecting with an estranged child. Being able to give people their lives back appeals to her.
While she knows the condition people are in when they come to CrossRoads, especially from the tunnels, she needed two days to recover emotionally when she first entered a tunnel a couple of years ago. She was shocked, and socked with empathy overload.
“I can’t believe this exists so close to home,” said Smith, 35. “I grew up in Las Vegas and I didn’t know that any of that existed until a few years ago.”
Smith, who has worked at CrossRoads for about two years, oversees about 40 full- and part-time nurses. She also regularly goes out with Shine a Light. She makes connections, examines and rubs petroleum jelly on people’s feet — trench foot is a real concern in the constantly soggy conditions — and tells people she’s ready when they are.
Leaving what they know would be jarring for anyone, she said.
“It really wouldn’t be that different than someone coming into your living room and telling you, hey, this isn’t the way you should be living. Let me come help you change this,” Smith said.
People in rehab are not at their best, but they can be when they take the opportunities, she said. She saw one person go from living and drinking on the street for 30 years to working a full-time job.
“I think it’s when you see it, you truly start to believe that” there’s hope, she said. “You start to know that that’s a real thing, that people can change.”
And for their potential changes, and differences, there is common humanity, even in the grips of mental illness and substance abuse.
She described meeting a man under the Hard Rock. He had a backpack that he carried a treasured trinket in, a small tooled leather bag that he’d found somewhere. It was one of the only material things he valued, and he gave it to her.
“I guess kind of the same reason that we want to go down there and take sandwiches and socks to put somebody else into a better spot” is why he gave her the gift, she said. “I felt like he wanted to do something as well for another human.”
She welled up, hugged him and told him she’d see him the next week.
• • •
The graduate: Paul
There’s the butterfly effect, and there’s the cricket effect.
The former is the theory that just the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can influence a tornado weeks later. The latter is the interference of a giant cricket in one man’s attempt to get high and trade living in one bleak, dank tunnel for another.
In 2014, Paul Vautrinot was trying to leave a toxic relationship with a girlfriend he lived with below ground. Both were using meth, and when she crashed one night, he started loading a shot of heroin to steel himself for a journey to another tunnel without her. He considered that the kind of improvement he was worth.
Then a cricket, the biggest he’d ever seen, jumped into the beam of his headlamp, a necessity for tunnel living. He jumped. He dropped his heroin. He scrambled to gather it up. Then, filled with resentment, he started hunting for the offending insect to kill it. He only heard its chirping echo on the smooth concrete wall for two hours before he gave up.
As soon as he went back to his drugs, a couple of police officers on patrol approached him.
He feigned acceptance of their offer to follow them out. But he knew he had warrants. He turned off his headlamp and bolted the other way through the foul warren. He’d long memorized it.
The police found him. They hauled him to jail. That was the last time he got high.
Around two years into his sobriety, he felt stable enough to go back to the tunnels with a new friend he’d made in outreach in that time. That was about four years ago.
“It’s almost like a purgatory stage, where you’re leading this life that you no longer want to be in but nothing good has happened where you believe this is what you want to do,” Vautrinot said. “There’s this period of time where you have to grind and just dig your heels in to re-create your life so that it’s worth not giving up.”
Vautrinot, 33, is a Las Vegas native. His mother was an alcoholic who was also addicted to crack, and he bounced around foster care.
After he graduated from Las Vegas Academy high school, he entertained thoughts of being a performer. Still a teen, he lived in a house with several professional jugglers and clowns and dabbled in drugs before being hooked by a visitor’s heroin that she passed off as opium.
After years of addiction and an attempt at reuniting with his father in Florida, he was back in Vegas and on the streets, having burned all his bridges.
He drifted on the streets along Eastern Avenue for months before moving below ground around Eastern and Serene for two and a half years.
He sold drugs by passing them through grates and manholes. That brought police attention to his tunnel. He fought with his girlfriend. That brought police attention, too. He said a voice in his head told him he was smart and savvy and better than this. A louder voice told him he was a junkie. He would die down there, it said. In a fetid niche beneath normal society.
He took this message as a release from his internal struggle, so all he had to do to improve his life was find a new tunnel.
But then a cricket jumped, and he dropped his dope and ran from police, who caught him so he could go before a judge who allowed him to go to drug court, which gave him a shorter jail sentence than the conventional criminal court, then released him during a drenching rainstorm, which led him to think he’d humor the demands of his post-jail sober living program while the tunnels were swollen with life-endangering rushing water. Then he got a job at a car wash and decided not to steal a wad of cash he found in a vehicle, and he realized he’d been sober nine months and life was actually pretty good.
Then he met his wife, had a child, graduated from drug court supervision, got a job in recovery, got promotions. He’s now the director of housing for Crossroads.
When he found the tunnels again he was resolved to help others.
He’s rewired his energy with the tunnels. He said he developed character, humility, gratitude, and a profession that he never would have otherwise, he said. Pain is the touchstone of growth. He still has friends there, but they’re relying on him for help to get to the surface. He’s another outreach guy, but they trust him, he said.
“It’s not Paul, it’s Shine a Light,” he said. “But I like the part that I play.”
• • •
The survivor: Rob
Rob Banghart was quick to return to the tunnels as a new man. He was living at Freedom House, a sober living apartment complex off Twain Avenue, and saw a small crew from Shine a Light leaving from there and wanted to be a part of something.
He has missed very few weekends in the tunnels over his two years of sobriety.
Banghart, 44, said he’d been an addict for most of his life. He was functioning when using opiates and drinking, although heroin ensnared him in prison for three years. Trafficking locked him up from about age 17 to 20, and he came to Las Vegas in 1999 from his native New Jersey to avoid going back to prison.
He worked as a chef in town and was sober for up to three years, then he relapsed. Within a month of relapse he was homeless. He stayed that way for five years. After his first two and a half years, he moved from the streets into a tunnel in the historical westside, near the Las Vegas Rescue Mission.
He tired of the hustle to keep up his heroin addiction, but, in his ill mind, replaced it with meth.
“It was like, I was gonna stop hitting myself with a hammer but I’m gonna jump on these nails,” he said.
On Aug. 9, 2018, he was “working” for the crime syndicate in his tunnel. Their section of tunnel was full of meth and theft with what he described as a “Lord of the Flies” kind of chaos. Banghart’s contribution that night was to bring some fenced goods to a drug dealer on the surface in exchange for drugs and money.
Competitors, armed with a pipe, ax and knife, beat and stabbed him, then left him for dead on the nearby railroad tracks.
A witness called police. He woke up in the hospital three days later with a lacerated liver, broken jaw and swelling in his brain.
He whispered his mother’s phone number, and friends and family ended up finding Paul Vautrinot, who got him into Freedom House. That’s where he saw, and joined, the Shine a Light crew.
He’s since seen his attackers, and “I’ve thanked all of them.”
“That needed to happen, as much as it hurt,” he said.
Banghart took on more responsibilities with Shine a Light and at Freedom House, where he took over for Vautrinot as program manager. He now oversees the case managers who work directly with residents. He’s more passionate about this than cooking.
He’s motivated that today might be the day that one of the people he’s been talking to will finally accept his resources.
“What if anybody that helped me had decided to take that day off?”