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Help and hope for those ready to leave the tunnels of Las Vegas

A picture of Paul Vautrinot, program director for Shine a Light
Paul Vautrinot

Beneath the streets of Las Vegas, there’s a hidden city, of sorts. Hundreds of people have created homes and makeshift communities in the miles of storm drains that run under neighborhoods, businesses and The Strip.  

Not that it’s an easy life. Danger can come in many forms—from attacks by other homeless people or from the elements. Over the years, people living there have been trapped and killed during flash floods.  

Living in the tunnels is, in many ways, a last resort for these people. With no money, without a job or a place to take care of the things we all take for granted, like showering, many feel there’s no way out. 

Shine a Light is group that works to provide that way out. Program director Paul Vautrinot has firsthand knowledge of what tunnel life is like, as he lived in them himself. Vautrinot told State of Nevada he struggled with addiction after high school, and found himself taking shelter in the storm drains.

I grabbed a hold of school as my only saving grace, it was my constant, it was the only thing that fed my self esteem, and when that went away, I turned to drugs and alcohol to fill the void. That escalated quite quickly and I really didn't have anything to get ahold of. I found comfort in those spaces.

Vautrinot lived under the city for a few years, until a series of events led him out of the tunnels and into recovery. He cites a social worker who worked with him every step of the way as one reason he was able to start over.  "Personally I don't think we can try to solve homelessness until we solve hopelessness. I honestly believe a lot of why I lived out there for as long as I lived out there had to do with a sense of hopelessness. A lack of self esteem, a lack of belief that I was capable of pulling myself out."

Vautrinot also connected with Matthew O'Brien, author of Beneath the Neon. The book chronicles the lives of people living in the tunnels under Las Vegas, and helped bring national awareness to this situation. O'Brien featured Vautrinot in his follow-up book Dark Days, Bright Nights, which tells stories of people who leave the tunnels. "I'm completely indebted to Matt," Vautrinot says. "Matt gave me purpose... outside of 'here's my story, please honor it when you tell it', it really put me on this trajectory with Shine a Light that helped me immerse myself in a project that's giving back."

Shine a Light is an organization created by O'Brien to reach out to people living in the tunnels. Volunteers bring food and supplies to the homeless. If they are ready to leave, Shine a Light is ready to assist.  Vautrinot now serves as the organization's program director. For him, it's his chance to be the person walking these people through each step of the way.

"We want to get you into housing, and when you're done with housing we want to stay with you until you get into the next level of housing, we want to help you get a job. When you get your own place, guess what, we're here to walk you through that."

These days, Vautrinot wears many hats. Along with Shine a Light, he works with Freedom House, Crossroads of Southern Nevada, and There is No Hero in Heroin. He says he's learned to find the best balance for him  between giving back to the community and to his loved ones. "I dedicate 10 hours a day to all of these projects, you have my full attention. The end of the day is dedicated to my family."

It keeps me humbled. It's a friendly reminder that if I don't stay the course, this is where I end up. It was before and it will be again if I decide to falter on these beliefs that I can no longer drink and do drugs. It keeps me right-minded.

Vautrinot's work is getting some special recognition. Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller is also recovering from addiction, and connected with Vautrinot's story. To thank Vautrinot for his work in the community, Waller surprised him with two tickets to the Super Bowl.For Vautrinot, it's a life-long dream coming to life.

Football has always been something that I've always kept very close to me, a way of escaping that was healthy I suppose. Even when I was homeless, I would go to a casino and buy these dollar foot-long hotdogs and I would sit in the sportsbook every Sunday and I would watch football. Eight years ago, no way you would have been able to convince me I was going to a live football game, let alone THE live football game. It's humbling, it's exciting, and you know, me and my wife will get to do something that's once in a lifetime.


Paul Vautrinot, program director, Shine a Light

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Kristen Kidman is a former senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.