LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – What drives the homeless into living in the tunnels of Las Vegas? What pulls them out?

Robert Banghart has some of the answers. In the past seven months, his crew of volunteers has pulled 220 people from the violence and desolation of cavelike living, up from 80 for all of the past year.

Shine A Light Foundation volunteers work at making a connection with homeless living in Las Vegas tunnels. (Robert Banghart, Shine A Light Foundation)

Every Saturday for four years, he and about 60 to 80 volunteers — in groups of six to eight — go into the tunnels, caves, flood channels and freeway underpasses, handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bottled water, first-aid kits and other items of survival.

These safety checks are one step on a path out, a way of making connections, building relationships with members of a population that’s leery of normal, protective of what’s theirs and often unpredictably violent.

“There’s 600 miles of tunnels in Las Vegas and 1,500 people living in them,” said Banghart, the outreach director at Shine A Light Foundation, a nonprofit focused on the Las Vegas homeless. “But everyone in there is a life, someone worth saving.”

Robert Banghart, left, works a step in the IPATH program for helping the homeless out of Las Vegas tunnels. (Shine A Light Foundation)

Addiction, mental illness, a broken family unit. These are common themes in the lives of the Las Vegas tunnel dwellers. Banghart, 46, knows firsthand, too. He lived in the tunnels until about four years ago. A savage beating started his path out, he said.

“I got hit in the head with an ax, split my skull, beaten with a pipe and my jaw broken,” Banghart said. “I was dead twice.”

The people at Freedom House Sober Living, another Las Vegas nonprofit, pulled him out, got him into a hospital. Banghart credits Paul Vautrinot, the director of Shine A Light, for his recovery. But after prison, 67 trips to rehab and “primal” living underground, Banghart had many reasons to say enough.

For Donica Martinez, 42, removed from the tunnels for five months in August, “the gift of despair” was her way out, she said.

Volunteers check on the condition of a tunnel dweller during a Saturday safety check. (Robert Banghart, Shine A Light Foundation)

Addiction and prostitution sent Martinez underground. “I was trafficked. I had a pimp, and he completely controlled my life for 14 years. And then he chased me for another three after that, and that’s how I got into the tunnels.”

Martinez, who has lived in Las Vegas for 20 years, said she took to the tunnels to shake free from her stalking pimp. “My addiction kept me there,” she said.

Her father’s death in October started her on a path out. She took all sorts of drugs, was once pistol-whipped and ended up on the side of railroad tracks — in triple-digit heat. She found the drugs did little to ease the pain of her father’s death. And that primal existence – instant gratification in finding food, water, shelter or the next fix – was taking its toll. She was dirty, alone, tired and lost.

“I felt I was a lost cause,” she said. “I wanted to just lay down in the dirt and turn to dust. But at the same time, I knew it was something my dad wouldn’t want for me.”

She knew from Shine A Light visits a crew was looking for her. So now she’s into her second round of seeking normalcy.

America DePasquale, 42, a lifelong Las Vegas resident, knows exactly what Martinez has been through. She agrees with Banghart’s description of the lifestyle being primal.

Much like Banghart and Martinez, addiction and a rebellious nature sent her underground. She lost custody of her two children; her mother took guardianship years ago when they were young.

Recent heavy rains flooded underground living spaces, forcing homeless to scamper, with Shine A Light volunteers assisting. (Robert Banghart, Shine A Light Foundation)

She now works in homeless services, as does Martinez. She works at repairing her relationship with her family. And she works with Banghart, Martinez and others visiting the tunnels, trying to pull people up and out.

Tunnel life is dangerous. There’s a hierarchy and a distrust, so the crews often approach cautiously. When a tunnel dweller doesn’t want the help, Banghart said the crew backs off.

“It’s cool, we say,” Banghart said. “We’re handing out free stuff. You want a cigarette? You got water? Here’s a bag of stuff. We’ll leave it for you.

“And then maybe next time, they see what we’ve done, that we’re good, here to help. No strings,” he said.

Violence is part of the primal existence, Banghart said. Going into the tunnels alone is unwise, he said. Shine A Light volunteers wear T-shirts and bracelets and identify themselves by announcing the nonprofit’s name and a message of “We’re here to help.”

Some of the danger for DePasquale is relaxed because she still has friends down there, people who helped her through some desperate times.

“There are people down there who need the example of my story,” she said. “I still have people down there I care about who helped me out from some dark, dark times. I was once one of them, and I want them to see it is possible to recover from such a hopeless state.

“That’s why there’s this merry band of us. We were once down there. And now we go back to help,” she said.

All of it is one step at a time.

For the volunteers, about 90% of whom were homeless or tunnel dwellers, Banghart urges the working of a program called IPATH (for Instant Placement with Access to Treatment and Housing).

The Saturday tunnel visits are part of the program, part of the healing — hopefully, for the homeless and certainly for volunteers — especially Banghart.

“I lived here a long time, but it never felt like home until I started giving back,” he said. “I need to give back, to go back where I came from, where I escaped.

“It’s a reminder of where I can go. Now, it’s part of my life,” he said.