Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro on Friday toured the flood tunnels underneath the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas, accompanied by local organizations working to end homelessness.
The former Housing and Urban Development secretary walked the city’s storm tunnels where hundreds of individuals seek shelter, using his campaign platform to highlight the issue of homelessness in Nevada.
“It wasn’t lost on me or anyone else there that underneath hotels that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in one of the places that is known around the world as a playground for people around this country and around the world, that you have people who are living in deep poverty, sleeping not even in the street, but in a drainage tunnel,” Castro said at an event in Las Vegas the day after.
Castro’s deputy campaign press secretary Sawyer Hackett, who joined the tour, described it as an “eye-opening” experience Castro “took a lot away from.”
“This is one of those eye-opening opportunities that’s not really political. It’s a chance to talk to these folks and see what they’re experiencing firsthand,” Hackett told CNN in an interview Saturday.
Hackett said the campaign intends to make housing “a front burner issue” and plans to release its housing plan in the next few weeks.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to lift up these problems in the context of a presidential campaign because, you know, this is a problem that happens in every major city,” Hackett said. “And we’re just simply not doing enough to combat it.”
Louis Lacey, the director of crisis teams at HELP of Southern Nevada who led the tour with Castro on Friday, said the 2020 candidate “reacted with genuine concern” to what he saw.
“Because of his experience with HUD, (Castro) was fairly knowledgeable about homeless issues – actually very knowledgeable. And he was actively listening to the individuals that we encountered and he was engaged in conversation,” Lacey told CNN on Saturday. “I felt that his concern was genuine and authentic.”
The storm drains act as a “de facto shelter” for men and women to escape the extreme heat or the cold weather of Las Vegas, according to Lacey. Anywhere from a few hundred to more than 500 hundred people seek shelter in these tunnels, he said.
For the 12 years he’s worked with HELP, Lacey said Castro was the first presidential candidate to tour the tunnels with the organization.
“It felt good to have somebody that was actively campaigning to lead our government that actually cared enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s go down and take a look,’” Lacey said.
In 2018, Nevada had 7,544 people experiencing homelessness in the state, with a majority being individuals, according to HUD’s annual report. Nevada was one of four states where more than half of all homeless were found in unsheltered locations. The state also had the highest rate of homelessness among unaccompanied youth.
“These individuals that have chosen to take refuge in the tunnels, they’re human beings,” Lacey said. “Empathy and compassion, as well as a realistic and working solution, is what’s called for in this situation.”
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.