This is what 3″ in an hour will do

This is the Imperial Palace parking structure.  We read about the employees on ATVs clearing out the channel when the structure floods.

This is just one of the above ground flood channels that filters into the underground ones.  Note the fences people climb to get down there.

Idiots on an inflatable mattress “riding” the storm channel.

SCARIEST STORY

Henderson police searched Wednesday for a teen who reportedly fell into the storm-swollen Pittman Wash near Stephanie Street and Sunset Road. Police: Teen Swept Away in Flood Waters in Pittman Wash.

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Homeless Vegas Stats as of 2011

Hope fades for growing number of homeless in Las Vegas

By Lynnette Curtis
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Posted: Nov. 6, 2011 | 1:59 a.m.
Updated: Nov. 6, 2011 | 7:46 a.m.

Come here at night and you’ll see scores of them, lying side-by-side in the open or huddled inside tents, banding together to form their own makeshift communities.

Many of them scatter when day breaks. But, especially lately, plenty of destitute campers remain around downtown’s homeless corridor even by day, squatting along the sidewalks or in empty lots, panhandling or simply wandering toward nowhere in particular.

“I’m not enjoying this lifestyle at all,” a bearded man in his 50s says while smoking next to his duffel bag on Foremaster Lane near Las Vegas Boulevard.

But he can’t go to a shelter, he says. “They’ve been filling up too fast.”

Early this year, Southern Nevada got some good news for a change. Despite the still dismal economy, significantly fewer people overall were homeless in the valley than in 2009, according to a large-scale January homeless count.

But a closer look at the results of that count revealed some disturbing trends. The number of people actually living on the streets, those most of us think of as “homeless,” had climbed dramatically. That disparity was made possible because the official, broader definition of homelessness includes people living in shelters or transitional housing.

Particularly troubling was the steep increase in homelessness in the area surrounding downtown’s homeless corridor, a cluster of shelters, empty lots, beleaguered businesses and graveyards near Foremaster and Las Vegas Boulevard that officials call the Corridor of Hope. The number of people on the streets in the area spiked by 230 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to the count.

Some say they’ve seen conditions there this bad only once before: in the months following 9/11, when tourism ground to a halt.

“So many families never expected the next paycheck wasn’t coming” at the that time, said Marlene Richter, executive director of The Shade Tree shelter for women and children. “But that was for a period of a few months. This time, it’s been years.”

Meanwhile, most homeless service providers in the area are making do with decreased funding and fewer resources — a losing combination.

“We are turning away up to 10 families a day,” Richter said. “There is no more shelter, no new facilities. That safety net is gone.”

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

Every two years, hundreds of volunteers gather to conduct a point-in-time homeless count meant to give social service providers an idea of how the local homeless population has changed. They fan out across the county in cars and on foot for a nighttime street count, which is then combined with tallies from local shelters, hospitals and other sources for an estimate of the number of homeless people living here on a given day.

Such censuses are required every two years to apply for federal grant money to fight homelessness.

This year, regional officials were pleased to discover that the overall homeless population had shrunk by nearly 30 percent, from 13,338 in 2009 to 9,432 in 2011.

They attributed the decrease in part to better collaboration between local government, nonprofits and faith-based groups that help the homeless.

But some social service providers said the overall numbers didn’t reflect the reality of what they were seeing.

“We haven’t seen a decline in terms of the shelter services we’re providing,” Phillip Hollon, vice president of plaza services for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said in May.

The charity’s shelter in the homeless corridor is full every night, he said, and workers have to turn people away.

“Maybe they wind up in someone’s backyard,” he said.

Indeed, the count revealed that while the overall number of homeless had decreased, there was a sharp increase in the number of unsheltered “street” homeless, from 3,027 in 2009 to 4,241 in 2011.

The overall decrease was thanks to shrinking numbers of “sheltered” and “hidden” homeless, people living in homeless shelters, transitional housing and in unconverted garages or other private property not meant for shelter.

It follows that some of those people wound up on the streets.

And the number of “street” homeless may be even higher, because they are notoriously hard to count. They stay hidden for privacy and safety.

About 29 percent of the entire valley’s street homeless, or about 1,245 people, were found in or around downtown’s homeless corridor, where they tend to gather because of resources available there. In 2009, that number was 377.

Those who work with the homeless say the resources aren’t enough and are even shrinking, leaving them to worry just how bad things could get.

“It scares me we’re going backwards to a time when people spent five or six years living on the sidewalk,” Richter said.

THE SHRINKING SAFETY NET

Social service providers say more people are living on Las Vegas Valley streets in part because safety-net programs were cut at the same time need increased in a dismal economy.

One of the cuts with the biggest impact was to the county’s emergency rental assistance program, which provides eligible individuals $400 a month to stave off homelessness.

The county’s budget for emergency rental and other financial assistance this year is $3.8 million. Two years ago, the county spent $12 million.

The cuts were necessary in part because the county had to assume more Medicaid costs from the state, said Tim Burch, interim director of Clark County Social Service Department.

As a result, the county had to slash the length of time most people can receive rental assistance each year from 90 days to 30.

“As the state shifts more of the burden to us, we have to shift it elsewhere,” Burch said. “It puts a burden on non­profits and other service providers in the Corridor of Hope. It puts a strain on the overall community safety net.”

Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program, said such cuts threaten to destroy the progress service providers managed to make over the years by working together.

“Whatever we accomplish in one area is taken away in another,” she said. “We come together and unify and support each other, and then somebody pulls the rug out.”

County support for Catholic Charities also has shrunk, leaving the downtown shelter with fewer emergency beds.

And because of budget cuts and a scarcity of employment opportunities, the charity had to gut its resident work program, which previously provided up to 400 men with shelter and job placement assistance. The program’s new capacity is 125.

Meanwhile, “we’re seeing more in need in this corridor than ever before,” Hollon said.

He said the shelter has been turning more men away.

So has the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, which this year was actually able to increase its shelter space thanks to private donations. Still, it wasn’t enough.

“A good number of those people (on the street) are there because they tried to get in some place and it was full,” said Bob Brunner, the mission’s executive director. “Unfortunately we do have to turn people away.”

Major Robert Lloyd, Clark County coordinator for the Salvation Army, said, “All you have to do is drive down to the area” to see the increased need.

“There are not enough beds. Look at the people outside, and you realize the shelter is full.”

THE NEW HOMELESS

Kathy Dowd, 54, is an educated woman with 20 years’ teaching experience.

She can intelligently discuss the plays of Shakespeare, lead poetry workshops and lecture on early childhood development.

She also is among the new faces of homelessness, the type of person social service providers are seeing more and more.

“I’ve always been able to get a job,” said Dowd, who has been living at The Shade Tree for more than a year. “I’ve worked my whole life.”

Dowd found herself in trouble after taking a hiatus from her teaching career to care for her ailing mother in Colorado. When her mother died, Dowd came to Las Vegas to start over. But what little money she had went quickly, and she found herself doing something she never imagined: going to a homeless shelter.

“People wonder how I ended up here,” she said. “Because of the economy, there are a lot of people in here who worked hard for years. We’re not all on drugs or alcohol. We’re not all winos and bums.”

Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow, whose ward includes the homeless corridor, said those who lost jobs and homes are now landing on the streets.

“These are individuals who had homes and full-times jobs, who were providing for their families,” he said. “These are the individuals who wound up sleeping on relatives’ and friends’ couches. Now, they’re out there.”

Many of the newly homeless struggle to find the help they never needed before.

“They are our former co-workers and neighbors,” Richter said. “They were working and had goals and plans. They found themselves in a situation they are completely unprepared to survive.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE

Social service providers would like to have more money and resources, and especially more jobs for the down-and-out. But they also are hopeful about a program in the works that would encourage churches and other faith-based institutions to “adopt” a homeless family or individual for a year.

The congregations of such institutions would serve as support groups for the homeless person or family they adopted, said Tyrone Thompson of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s committees on homelessness and youth.

“The congregation would help them navigate through the process, find food stamps and other benefits,” he said.

The program is being developed in partnership with Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless families in part by partnering with faith-based organizations, Thompson said.

Lloyd, from the Salvation Army, said he would like to see churches pursue more partnerships with existing homeless service organizations instead of trying to start their own.

“It’s always demoralizing when you need help and a church wants to know how to start its own social service agency or food bank,” he said. “It’s demoralizing when you see those churches feeding people out of the back of a vehicle and not picking up the garbage.”

Donations such as food, clothing and blankets given directly to people in the homeless corridor often wind up discarded on the street. City cleanup crews regularly sweep everything up.

“It really builds up,” said Las Vegas police officer Mark Washington, part of the department’s Homeless Evaluation Liaison Project (HELP) team. “There are a lot of good-hearted people out there; but when you give resources to people on the street, a lot of times it goes to waste.”

  • A homeless encampment has sprung up along Owens Avenue near A Street at the edge of downtown’s homeless corridor. The number of people living on the streets in and around the corridor has more than tripled since 2009, according to a January homeless count.

  • Darla Hatcher cries as she talks about how she spent the night outside a business on Main Street. Social service providers are seeing an increasing number of homeless while resources to help them dwindle.

  • Brian, who declined to give his last name, has been sleeping in the bed of his pickup with his father and his dog, Big Al Capone. He gets a monthly check from the Army. “So many people are just one paycheck away from this,” the 43-year-old said.

  • Kathy Dowd, 54, is among the valley’s “new” homeless — people who have never before found themselves with no place to go. Dowd, who has 20 years’ teaching experience, has been living at The Shade Tree Shelter for more than a year. “Because of the economy, there are a lot of people in here who worked hard for years,” she said. “We’re not all on drugs or alcohol. We’re not all winos and bums.”

  • Eric Janson, with the city’s Rapid Response Team, cleans up items left by homeless people in a former trailer park in downtown’s homeless corridor. Donations such as food and blankets given directly to people in the area often wind up discarded.

Nothing but cables and mud below Chicago.

The Chicago Freight Tunnels

1904 construction view of a completed tunnel with track and telephone conduits overhead
© Bruce Moffat Collection

Essay by Bruce G. Moffat

Bruce G. Moffat uncovers the freight tunnels that lay beneath the Loop. Currently housing communications and high voltage electrical conduits or lying empty, during the firs half of the 20th Century they were a vital network for the city and the images from Bruce’s collection are a testimony of it.

At the turn of the 20th century, the streets of Chicago’s relatively concentrated Central Business District (known as the Loop) were already at or beyond capacity, with streetcars, horse-drawn delivery wagons, and pedestrians vying for space. Were it not for the fact that horse-drawn buggies were few and the debut of the mass produced private automobile was still in the future, the situation would have been worse. The Loop and its adjoining areas were home not only to large department stores and office buildings, but also six major railroad railroad terminals, the seemingly innumerable warehouses and freight terminals maintained by railroads and steamship lines, numerous wholesale and warehousing operations, and even light manufacturing firms who contributed to the congestion – all in the name of commerce. The crush of supporting vehicles made the streets nearly impassible at times.

It was this situation that caused the promoters of a new telephone system to add the construction of a subterranean freight railway to their plans. The Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company had been organized in 1898 to construct a telephone system that would compete with the well-established Chicago Telephone Company. The City of Chicago required the IT&T to place their wires underground in conduits. Construction of the conduits began in late 1899; however. these were crafted to a size much larger than needed to hold mere wires. Built to a dimension of 7 1/2 feet high and 6 feet 9 inches wide, they happened to be just large enough to also accommodate a narrow gauge railway.

December 1929, tunnel train being loaded with packages in a Loop Department store
© Bruce Moffat Collection

Although it is unclear if the railway was a part of the company’s plans from the start, they failed to tell the city they were building a railroad until construction was fairly well along, apparently fearing municipal meddling. What is clear is that the subterranean railway was envisioned not to handle passengers but freight. By diverting freight from slow moving wagons on congested streets to electric trains running beneath them, it would be possible to move goods of almost every description quickly between railroad stations, boat docks, department stores and factories. The building of a ‘subway’ for freight, rather than for passengers, was, to say the least, unusual. And excepting a specialized mail handling railway that would later open in London, it was unique among the world’s railways.

Following the company’s admission in 1902 that they were building a railroad in their telephone ‘conduits,’ the City Council began a contentious round of negotiations with the company that resulted in the passage the following year of an ordinance authorizing the operation of the railway with hefty franchise payments going into the municipal coffers. Construction crews dug tunnels under nearly every downtown street at a depth of forty feet. This depth ensured that most tunnels would run through clay, which simplified tunneling. The relatively small size of the tunnels meant that standard railroad cars could not be used. Instead, specially built freight cars measuring about ten feet in length and five feet in width had to be used. This meant their cargo had to be manually transferred to/from “full size” railroad cars for delivery to distant points.

In 1906, the freight tunnel railway opened under the name of the successor Illinois Tunnel Company (a subsequent reorganization resulted in the name being changed to the Chicago Tunnel Company). Freight loads typically consisted of small packages (parcels) from department stores destined to mail order customers located outside of the downtown area, non-liquid commodities of all types destined to wholesale and large retail customers, coal for building heating, and removal of heating ash.

In 1910, the company reported to the state and federal regulatory commissions that they had nearly 60 miles of track and 22 connections with railroad freight houses and 45 commercial buildings. It was estimated that the company’s little trains had diverted the equivalent of 1.3 million vehicle trips from the streets. By 1924, traffic had declined slightly, even though the number of commercial buildings served had risen to 60. (The telephone side of the business had been discontinued in 1916 due to excessive losses.)

Chicago Tunnel Co. 1920s system map
© Bruce Moffat Collection

In the succeeding decades, results were largely no better, resulting in the company being at best marginally profitable. Reasons for the company’s rather lackluster results was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the relatively low number of connections to on-line buildings. The cost of tunneling into those buildings frequently had to be borne by their owners and, in many cases, this did not make economic sense. For many potential users it was simply cheaper to have a wagon (or later motor truck) pull up to the curb.

The enterprise’s original concept – to divert freight from the streets and put it underground – was novel and certainly a century or more ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the system’s physical constraints, and indeed the changing nature of central area land uses, made its business model impossible to sustain. The list of adverse “environmental” changes that buffeted the company during the 1940’s and 1950’s was a long one: connecting railroads had largely discontinued the handling of small packages and had closed or relocated their freight handling operations to outlying areas; the construction of the passenger subways now used by the Chicago Transit Authority had forever severed connections to some of the Loop department stores; motor trucks siphoned away most of their freight business; light manufacturing was rapidly disappearing from the Loop; and finally, buildings were converting from coal to gas for heating. The end of operations came in 1959.

Tunnel Company locomotive and safety sign in 1928
© Bruce Moffat Collection

To help pay creditors, most of the locomotives and freight cars were sold for scrap. as was the electrical distribution system that had powered the trains. The track remained, however, as it was too difficult and expensive to remove from the concrete floor.

Now entirely controlled by the city, the tunnels entered a period of dormancy, broken only in the mid-1970’s when the city began leasing out limited portions to house electrical and communication conduits. Maintenance and inspection of the tunnels was at best minimal.

Tunnel Company mail car at Grand Central Station in 1906
© Bruce Moffat Collection

Largely forgotten, the 40-plus miles of tunnels that remained surged back into the public’s consciousness on April 13, 1992, when a section of the Kinzie Street tunnel that passed beneath the Chicago River gave way. During 1991, the city had directed a contractor to drive a series of wood pilings into the bed of the river to protect the Kinzie Street Bridge from being struck by passing vessels. In doing so, the contractor had driven one of these into the wall of the freight tunnel that ran beneath the river at this point. The placement error and harm to the tunnel wall was not found until January 1992, when a surveying crew for a communications company stumbled on the damage.

The city’s efforts to follow up on the survey crew’s report and initiate repairs turned out to be too little too late. Early on the morning of April 13, 1992, the wall gave way and the sub-basements of many of downtown Chicago’s largest and most iconic buildings quickly filled with water as the river literally surged into the largely forgotten network of tunnels. Other buildings and the CTA’s passenger subways sprang leaks where they were built up against the nearly century-old freight tunnels, but fortunately remained relatively largely dry. Quickly dubbed the “Loop Flood,” this unusual calamity attracted worldwide attention. Large sections of the Loop were temporarily evacuated due to fears that power failures resulting from the flood would trap workers in their high rise office buildings.

Efforts to stop ‘the leak’ were fruitless. Only after the tunnels had completely filled was it possible to seal-off the ruptured tunnel and begin the dewatering process, a task that took until over a month to complete. Business and physical losses were over $1 billion dollars by some estimates. Since that time, the city has made improvements that should prevent a reoccurrence of the flood.

View south on Wabash at connecting tunnel to Marshall Field’s. 10-21-1992
© Bruce G. Moffat

Today, some of the tunnels house communications and high voltage electrical conduits. Others remain empty and some sections have been filled in or obliterated due to construction of the CTA subways and large buildings.

It is complicated to speculate about the potential that the tunnels may have beyond the current utility galleries they are in some areas. The tunnels are too small and too deep for public transportation purposes. Their only non-utility use could be as a tourist curiosity, like the tunnels and caverns under other cities such as Paris. They could be understood as a form of cave exploration or “urban spelunking”. However, the City of Chicago has been generally unfavorable towards the idea of having tours conducted through the network. But there is something intoxicating about searching the network and finding remains of a railroad that has been abandoned for more than 50 years.

Bruce G. Moffat has authored two books on the Chicago “L” system and two on the Chicago freight tunnels, as well as having contributed to several other books pertaining to Chicago transportation history.

Question #1

Keepinitreal: As I said, we’ve read a lot of books like The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and she inserts herself into the story.  And we read Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti and he’s in the story; he’s on the road trip.  And you are very much in this story as the discoverer and the explorer.    But you went a step beyond and started the Shine a Light Community Foundation.  What was it that you saw down there that moved you to do so much to continue your work besides it being just a book or a piece of reporting?

Matt O’Brien: Well, there are a couple parts.  There are a couple questions in there that I can respond to.  As far as like putting myself in the story; it just kind of made sense for it to be a first person narrative.  I just didn’t really see writing this from a third person perspective.  So I definitely wanted to do it as a first person story and then the first draft I wasn’t in it as much.  And the editor that I was working with on the book said, “Look you’re one of the characters.  We need more of your emotions, your feelings, what was going on with you.”  It’s not something at the time that I was entirely comfortable with as far as writing first person stories or making myself one of the main characters in some ways.  I mean, I think he was right and we needed more of me in there at some point and I do more of that in my writing now than I did back then.

But as far as the Shine a Light thing, as a journalist you write about issues that you want to bring attention to and then you hope that someone in the community will react to them.  I wanted to tell the stories of the people that live in these underground flood channels right beneath the casinos in some cases.  And I was hoping that one of the government agencies here or the non-profits; someone would do something to help these people.  That was my biggest goal.  My greatest fear was that the police would go down and just sweep everyone out of the tunnels.  But neither one of those things was realized.  The story did get some attention but, yeah.  So, finally, a couple years after the book came out, I reached out to a big charity organization here, HELP in Southern Nevada, and I said, “Look, I know these tunnels, there are people down there.  You guys have the resources and the know-how.  Maybe we can collaborate and get some assistance to the people down there.  And they were very enthusiastic and I just started escorting their social workers down a couple times a month and showing them new tunnels and taking them deeper into tunnels and introducing them to people.  And that’s how the Shine a Light Community Project was started.      

Matt O’Brien – Thank You!

A HUGE THANK YOU goes out to Matt O’Brien for talking to me last night.  He was incredibly down to earth and more than happy to answer my questions.  I wish all interviews were that easy.

In other news…tonight is the night!  I’ll see you at 7:00 ti discuss Beneath the Neon.

And stay tuned for excerpts from my interview as I get time to type them up during the day.