People Experiencing Homelessness Go Underground

by | Dec 14, 2010 | Uncategorized

We just have to share this amazing photoessay, the pictures taken by Getty Images staff photographer Paula Bronstein (and erroneously credited here to Paul Bronstein.) In Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, the winters are long and very, very cold, and many homeless people survive by living underground in tunnels that are not actually sewers, as the headline states, but channels for heating pipes.

Really, this is fascinating. Someone has taken the trouble to translate (from another website) nearly 100 comments from “Chinese netizens” as well as, apparently, European expats in China, and people from other countries too. Some cruelly anti-Mongolian sentiments are expressed. The country used to belong to China, then became a satellite of the USSR, but now Russia is kaput, so things don’t go well in Mongolia. But many points of view are represented. One person says,

Beijing isn’t lacking either — If you have the chance, go to the Beijing Film Academy campus gates and look under the manhole covers…

Another says,

There is in fact a tradition of cave dwellings in northern provinces such as Henan and Shaanxi. The soft loessial soils allow cave dwellings to be excavated, providing homes that are spared the worst of baking summers and freezing winters. Getting enough natural light into the cave dwellings however is one problem that is shared with living in a sewer. There is simply never enough sunlight or daylight.

In case you’re thinking, “This could only happen in Mongolia,” think again. Or rent Dark Days, a documentary directed, produced, and filmed by Marc Singer, and released in 2000. It’s all about homeless people living in an Amtrak tunnel under New York City, amid construction debris and terrible noise from the trains, with plenty of rats for company. They build shelters from scrap wood, cardboard, tarpaulins, and whatever else they can get hold of.

Many of the residents have managed to pull electricity into their subterranean shacks. Sometimes they go “up top” to find food and things to sell. Many have pets, for protection or companionship. The sanitary arrangements vary. One resident says that if you’re homeless, this is the best place in the city to be.

But it’s not safe down there. One guy demonstrates for the camera how he sets up a noise trap, so if anybody approaches his place while he’s sleeping, a bunch of frying pans will fall down and wake him. Another claims that 80% of the tunnel dwellers are crackheads. A woman named Dee tells how someone tried to burn her hut with her in it. Still, most of the tunnel dwellers look out for each other and engage in cooperative efforts, and some of them have been down there for 20 years. It is a weird but not totally dysfunctional family.

Then, along come the armed Amtrak police, telling everybody they have 30 days to get out. Not one person wants to go to a shelter, where everything you have including your clothes will be stolen. With the aid of the Coalition for the Homeless, they negotiate the Section 8 bureaucracy. With the promise of housing, they demolish the cozy shelters that were built with so much care. The film ends by showing the various formerly underground people in their new apartments, with real beds, and windows with trees outside.

Now, check out “Lost Vegas” by Pete Samson, who explored the unknown world underneath America’s capital of gambling and glitz. He says hundreds of homeless people live in parts of the 350-mile flood tunnels beneath Las Vegas:

Rather than working in the bars or kitchens they ‘credit hustle’, prowling the casinos searching the fruit machines for money or credits left by drunken gamblers.

But the competition is stiff. Sometimes there is day labor, and there are always dumpsters to recover food and useful items from. Sampson interviews several residents, including a woman named Amy, who says,

The main dangers are the floods and the Black Widow spiders. But it’s not a terrible place to be if you’re homeless… It’s much cooler than on the streets, we get a breeze coming through and the cops don’t really bother you. It’s quiet and everyone helps each other out down here.

Clearly, something is amiss, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Despite all the promises humankind has made to itself about a brighter future, conditions are getting worse and worse for more and more people. What can alleviate the situation? The Universal Living Wage might be a good place to start.


Source: “Mongolia’s Homeless Living Underground In Sewers,”, 11/06/10
Source: “Dark Days (2000),”
Source: “Lost Vegas,”, 09/24/09
Image of Dark Days, used under Fair Use: Reporting.