BOULDER CITY, Nev. (AP) — Richard Roman lives by few rules. But one he made up himself: When you’re in hell, move a few ZIP codes away and make your own heaven.
Roman’s heaven is a surprisingly cozy encampment in an abandoned mine shaft above Boulder City, just 26 miles southeast of glitzy and glamorous Las Vegas.
The tall 68-year-old with boyish blonde hair, intense dark blue eyes and a weathered face that recalls a younger Hugh Hefner, freely acknowledges his struggles with drugs and alcohol played a big role in his descent into homelessness.
“I’ve always liked the nefarious kind of life,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal with a rueful grin.
But through it all he retained the resourcefulness of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, which has enabled him to convert his cavern into an off-the-grid home with a certain subterranean charm.
The shaft, which descends about 20 feet into a rocky ridge, now features two swinging wooden doors locked into place using spray foam sealant; a customized mattress cut to fit into an elevated corner of the cavern; and an old fan salvaged from a scrapped Nissan Altima that pumps air to maintain a comfortable 85 degrees on even the hottest days.
Roman lovingly painted the slabs on the ceiling and walls gray and adorned them with various knickknacks, including a paddle inscribed with the word “Raiders.”
A $2,000 solar panel he saved up to buy powers several LED lights and batteries scattered around the roughly 160-square-foot living space.The floor is covered by cast-off casino carpet.
On a recent morning, Roman used a propane tank to brew coffee, which he shared with a neighbor who has been sleeping nearby lately on a cot in the open air. The two sat in lawn chairs in what might be called the foyer and talked about heroin addiction.
Roman said he has been living in the shaft for seven years, but Boulder City officials only recently became aware that he and about four other homeless campers in far more primitive circumstances squatting on the undeveloped city land.
Last month, a posse of police officers on horseback paid a visit but left without attempting to coax Roman out of his cave.
“They said everything is OK,” Roman said. “But if they did say I have to go, I would say thank you for the time.”
Boulder City has a population of less than 16,000 and more than 200 square miles of undeveloped land. But with few social services available, the open spaces are only used by a few handfuls of homeless individuals, city officials say.
Last year’s annual homeless census counted 12 people in Boulder City. Parks and Recreation Manager Julie Calloway acknowledged the population ebbs and flows.
Still, the city recently formed a homeless task force that Calloway heads, with a mission is to provide the City Council with recommendations on policy and possible resources for the homeless.
Already, the city has discussed changing limiting camping to certain locations and banning urination or defecation in public. Also under consideration is a system for police officers to direct homeless people to available support services.
Roman insisted he doesn’t need services, whatever they may be.
“If they just let me (be) with what I’ve got, I’ll be fine,” he said.
Roman describes a “hayseed” youth on a farm in Nebraska.
“If you wanted anything, you made it” he said.
That stayed with him throughout his life, even though he didn’t always draw on it. After he graduated high school in 1969, he said, he moved to California, where he repossessed cars in San Francisco and said he dabbled in the sale of guns and cocaine.
“That was exhilarating to me,” he said. “I was the whitest punk in the neighborhood.”
As he grew older, he worked at aircraft salvage, as a machine designer, built wood-burning stoves, learned how to fly planes.
His vices, which he lists as alcohol, gambling, sex, cocaine and methamphetamine, made a mess of his personal life.
He was married and had two sons before getting divorced in 2000.
“I was married for 23 years and cheated for 15,” he said with a sneer. “If I could do it all again, I’d cheat for all 23.”
Roman moved to Las Vegas and worked until 2008, when he tested positive for cocaine and lost his job.
For three years, he stayed at the Salvation Army and volunteered in the kitchen so he wouldn’t face violence on the streets.
Roman heard about the abandoned mine in Boulder City from a friend who lived nearby.
“Rats were afraid to come in here, it was so dirty,” he said, recalling his first visit.
But Roman said his Pisces horoscope that day read, “Do not be afraid to enter the cave because what is in there you’ve been looking for all your life.”
After cleaning and slow improvements, Roman said it’s comfortable.
For one thing, it’s a convenient location, situated just off a paved bike path behind Railroad Pass Casino, close to a highway and just 10 minutes from a bus stop where he can take a 20-minute ride into town.
It’s also mostly peaceful — except when trains or helicopters pass by.
Roman said he could try to stretch his Social Security income of just $1,000 a month if he moved back to Las Vegas and got an apartment.
“I’m not ready for that, though,” he said.
Roman’s biggest battle is with spiders, worms and other assorted crawly creatures.
Once, he said, he captured a Mojave rattlesnake with a contraption fashioned from an old tennis racket.
He had a flood in his lair last July.
Though he generally feels safe, he keeps a loaded revolver by his bedside.
In the years since moving in, Roman has seen people come and go.
Some whisper to themselves. One spent most of his life in an Indiana prison. One 400-pound man died of pneumonia. Another, 75-years-old, had a heart attack and collapsed by the railroad tracks.
Boulder City and Nevada Division of Minerals officials visited the area this month, installing barbed wire around a 25-foot-deep hole not far from Roman’s encampment.
“Danger: unsafe mine. Stay out, stay alive,” it reads.
Garrett Wake, Division of Minerals southern Nevada chief, classified Roman’s home as an adit — a horizontal opening in a hillside that he said didn’t present much of a danger.
“An actual mine would be much more extensive,” Wake said.
The division partnered last year with Clark County officials to seal dozens of abandoned mines in the hills above a growing southwest Las Vegas area neighborhood where homeless people were living.
Lisa LaPlante, Boulder City spokeswoman, said the future of Roman’s home will be a city policy decision.
“There are a number of possibilities (where) we can go from here, and we’re still weighing our legal options,” LaPlante said.
For his part, Roman said he’s making preparations in case he has to leave at some point.
“Everything has a turn of events,” he said. “And I’m OK with that.”
His Plan B is a teepee, 8 feet in diameter, that he said he created out of plywood in a location he won’t disclose.
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com