I met Rick about five years ago, on the bank of a dry wash that snakes behind the Budget Suites on Tropicana Avenue near Wynn Road, an underground flood channel yawning in the distance. Typing on my laptop, I was gathering follow-up notes for Beneath the Neon. Rick, scaling a cinderblock wall, dropped down next to me atop the bank. Startled, I turned toward him. He was wearing a baseball cap turned backward, a T-shirt, faded jeans and dirty sneakers (his standard street attire). His leathered face was framed by a scraggly beard and he was thin and muscular. I was convinced he was going to try to snatch my laptop.
Instead, Rick (aka “Iron”) flashed a disarming smile, sat down next to me and asked what I was working on. I explained that I was a journalist researching a book about the tunnels and was taking follow-up notes on this channel, which I’d previously explored. He told me he’d been on the streets for about four years and was living in the nearby tunnel.
Over the next several years, as I returned to the area to check on people I knew in the tunnels, show members of the media the drains and do outreach with HELP of Southern Nevada, I got to know Rick. He was from Oklahoma, had worked in construction as a glazier and had a beautiful daughter. He moved to Las Vegas to work for a pedicab company, which eventually went under. A drug addiction led him to the streets.
For two years, Rich Penksa, Louis Lacey, Macheo Willis and others at HELP of Southern Nevada visited the tunnels and offered housing and other services to Rick—one of the nicest guys on the streets. He declined, explaining that he “wasn’t ready.” But a few weeks ago, he made his way down to HELP’s Flamingo Road office and is now housed in an apartment in central Vegas.
In a text message this morning, Rick marveled at the fact that he won’t be spending Christmas in the tunnels and, half-jokingly, wondered if he’d miss them. I’m hoping he won’t—and that this will be one of many more he’ll spend housed and clean and safe and warm.
Merry Christmas, Rick! And a happy new year!