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Mole People
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America’s Shame – The Invisible Homeless

By James Donahue

A few years ago firefighters in Oakland, California, were called to extinguish a fire in some subterranean vaults deep under the city. As they prepared to enter the vaults, they were met by people climbing up out of them to escape the plumes of smoke rolling out of local storm drains.

It was discovered that the fire started in some wood material used in an underground city of homeless people living inside the drains and other vaults created by retaining walls holding up Twelfth Street, along the south shore of Lake Merritt.

Fire investigators discovered that the people living there had used some ingenuity to tap into power lines under the street and were operating refrigerators, televisions, stereos and other appliances.  They had accumulated household furnishings including chairs, tables, beds and other things, creating a home for the homeless.

This has obviously not been an isolated story. As the jobless and homeless crisis intensifies, and the extreme cold of winter sweeps the land, people have been driven underground in cities all over the nation. At least underground, the temperature remains at a constant above freezing temperature. And many of the older cities possess large concrete storm drains, tunnels housing utility services, and even abandoned subway tunnels that offer cover for the homeless. Tent cities do not work well when the snow flies and temperature drops below freezing.

In 1993, Jennifer Toth published The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, which told even then of her encounters with many of an estimated 5,000 homeless people living in subway and abandoned railroad tunnels under New York. The book described the way the people lived in multilevel labyrinths, often forming organized communities with elected leaders. They also found ways to tap into city utility systems to get electricity, heat and running water.

Toth’s book was published in 1993, long before the current economic crisis struck and the housing bubble burst. Can we imagine what must be occurring now in such labyrinths that may exist anywhere in America?

Among the latest revelations has been the story of “mole people” living in the underground flood tunnels right below the famous Sunset Strip of Las Vegas, Nevada. News reporters who have visited the tunnels say an estimated 1,000 people are making their home in these dark, often partially flooded concrete tunnels. They risk disease, venomous spiders and heavy floods during the monsoon season. Yet they have fashioned elaborate camps, complete with furniture, lighting and beds raised high enough to stay dry during the rainy season.

Other cities like Rochester, New York, once had an underground rapid transit system that now offers abandoned open tunnels where the homeless gather for shelter. Like most cities, however, professional planners are studying ways to turn the tunnels into underground walkways and retail shops designed to attract tourists. Where is the empathy for our invisible homeless in Rochester?  Does it exist anywhere?

Consider the action by city officials in St. Louis in April, 2010. There the Board of Aldermen denied an appeal by 48 homeless occupants of a tunnel asking for a place to relocate when the city demolished the tunnel where they were living. While 48 showed up at city hall, it was estimated that over 100 people were living in Tucker Tunnel, which was dubbed “Hopeville” by the people living there.

While the people admitted the tunnel contained trash and rodents, they said it offered shelter from the weather and a sense of community. The occupants of Hopeville said they had their own leadership council, they set rules against drugs and violence, and even maintained their own security against intruders.

The exposures of the mole people in tunnels throughout the United States appears to be offering no help to the masses of unfortunate people huddled within these underground structures for comfort. Instead of reaching out to provide badly needed housing and assistance, city officials appear more interested in driving them out of sight and out of mind.