The morning following a heavy July monsoon, Paul Vautrinot treks toward a flood tunnel to deliver supplies to homeless people living underground near the Strip. The 31-year-old serves as point person for Shine a Light, a nonprofit that provides access to temporary housing, drug counseling, and other services for those seeking to escape the valley’s flood tunnels. A recovering addict, he sees it as his personal mission to lend an ear — as well as a pathway out — to such people. “I’m there to connect one side of life to their side of lives,” Vautrinot says. First-time volunteer Sean Miller follows close behind as they carry supplies, including socks, canned food, and AA batteries.
Before they reach the entrance, a man on a worn mountain bike approaches. “Going down in my house?” he jokes.
“Yeah,” Vautrinot replies, “I’m coming through to drop off some stuff, dude.” He and Miller follow the man into the dark, debris-littered tunnel. Half a mile in, they find two other inhabitants, who talk about the hardships they’ve endured beneath Vegas, including chronic drug addiction and a flash flood that nearly swept them away the previous night.
“We’re just trying to get you out of the trap,” Vautrinot explains. “I understand what it’s like to be here.” But they’re wary; although they express interest in what Vautrinot’s telling them, none are ready to abandon their culvert home yet.
There are 619 miles of channels and washes in Clark County, most of which are underground. A January count by the group Help Hope Home found 316 people living in them, though Vautrinot thinks the population is closer to 1,000. He realizes that not everyone he talks to will be interested in leaving, at least not right away: “I once took years and years and years of convincing that there was a better way of life.”
Vautrinot spent much of his childhood shuttling between his mother, Susan Otis — with whom he had strained relations because of her addictions to alcohol and crack — and family members and others willing to take him in. A student at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, he legally emancipated from his mother at 17, but by the time he graduated in 2005, he had a problem with heroin. By 2011 he was homeless in a tunnel near Eastern Avenue and the 215.
“I remember walking up to the tunnel and feeling this breeze coming out. It was like this illusion that was, like, set to make you feel as if there was some sort of positive change involved,” Vautrinot says. There wasn’t. He eventually got “to the point where I realized that I would die down there, and I was okay with it.”
Following a 2014 arrest for drug-related warrants, Vautrinot sobered up and abandoned life underground. He worked at a car wash and married his wife, Kaylyn — also a recovering addict — in 2016. He mended ties with his mother, who’s been sober since 2011.
“Sometimes I look at him and I’m like, I don’t even know who he is because I don’t ever really (know) who he was,” Otis says. “(I’m) super proud of who he’s become now.”
Vautrinot works as program case manager at Freedom House Sober Living, a nonprofit addiction-treatment halfway house. “He’s very approachable, and very likeable, and believable,” founder Jeff Iverson says. “It really takes all of those components to reach some of the most difficult cases out there.”
Still, he wanted to do something specifically for people in the tunnels. That came into focus when he met Shine a Light founder Matthew O’Brien, a journalist-turned-activist who founded the grassroots charity in 2009 to donate supplies for tunnel dwellers and help connect them with resources above ground. (His 2007 book Beneath the Neon detailed his encounters with Vegas’ homeless tunnel people. He’s working on a sequel about people who got out.)
“I was just blown away by what he said, how he said it, how far down he was at one point, and how far he’s come,” O’Brien says. After accepting a teaching job in El Salvador last summer, O’Brien felt it was only natural to pass the baton — or, rather, an official map of Vegas’ flood channels — to Vautrinot, and partner Shine a Light with Freedom House.
“He had always felt it was kind of his destiny to give back to this community that he was a part of at one time, so it kind of fell together pretty quickly,” O’Brien says.
Thanks to its merger with Freedom House, Shine a Light offers direct access to various resources regardless of underlying addiction issues, including transitional housing, drug counseling, job training, and a GED program, while sticking to its grassroots origins of delivering supplies to people underground.
Vautrinot has helped three people remain out of the tunnels since taking over Shine a Light, including 49-year-old Curtis Arakawa. Arakawa was living in a tunnel across from the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, strung out on alcohol and meth, when Vautrinot convinced him to visit Freedom House in October. “He wasn’t just someone on the outside looking in, trying to shower pity on us,” Arakawa says. “You could tell he came from the same place.”
After two months of sobriety at Freedom House, Arakawa now works as a full-time sushi chef, his trade before homelessness, though he says he’s occasionally slipped back into substance abuse, an indication of the complexities of the life Vautrinot helped him escape. “I appreciate him and everything he’s done,” Arakawa says.
Vautrinot is launching what he says is a $100,000 fundraising drive to help finance some 160 months of free housing and drug treatment for Shine a Light’s clients. “I think that there will always be people who want out and don’t know how to get out,” he says, “and I believe that’s what we’re here for.”