Nearly two decades ago, Matthew O’Brien, ’15 MA English, first ventured into a vast network of storm drains under Las Vegas to chronicle the stories of the homeless people who had taken refuge there. That project, which began as a series for the Las Vegas alternative weekly CityLife, became the 2007 book “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas” and led O’Brien to become an activist for this particularly marginalized population.
The stories collected are timeless, though readers may feel they resonate more strongly right now, as the entire country feels the strain and economic hardships of the pandemic, and we all seek some narrative that has an uplifting ending — a light at the end of the tunnel. But not all of the 36 individuals he interviewed became success stories. Some ended up returning to the streets or fell back into addiction. The last chapters, however, are filled with triumphs, the voices of people who have overcome many hardships and hurdles placed before them.
The interviews “explode myths surrounding homelessness while promoting compassionate views of the growing number of homeless Americans,” according to Kirkus Reviews. O’Brien’s mission is to present the stories as a humanizing, thoughtful reeducation about a segment of the population most Americans are quick to stereotype rather than get to know. In chapters that group vignettes according to specific questions, participants tell readers about their childhoods and adolescent years, the trauma or circumstances that led them to homelessness, the daily battles with addiction, and the ever-present hope and will to overcome.
O’Brien — who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and won a Silver Pen award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame — said one thing his experiences in the tunnels taught him is the homeless all seemed to be natural storytellers. He explained that for many, their survival on the streets depended on how well they could tell their story, and sometimes it became part of their “hustle” in order to get by. O’Brien said the people he met were overwhelmingly open and honest with him, and none were shy about relating their personal histories.
“They opened their homes to me,” he said, and it is clear that the hospitality he was shown deeply resonated. His rapport with the residents of the storm drains allowed him to escort other media contacts and social workers into the tunnels over the years. Many who lived there grew to trust him, and if they didn’t know him, chances were they knew someone who trusted him.
In 2009, O’Brien founded Shine a Light, a grassroots community organization operated out of his apartment closet. The organization now operates as a Freedom House Sober Living program under the direction of lead program case manager Paul Vautrinot, who spent three years living in the tunnels prior to his recovery, and Robert Banghart, also a survivor of the storm drains. Shine a Light distributes supplies like water, food, socks, flashlights, and batteries, but now the program also offers housing, drug counseling, and job training, among other needed services.
A quarter of O’Brien’s share of the book’s profits will go directly to Shine a Light in order to help it serve the population living in the tunnels.
“What started out as mere research for a CityLife story became, and remains, a huge part of my life,” he said.