At first blush, it seems obvious why there’s a connection between gambling and homelessness, but people shouldn’t be so quick to jump to a conclusion. When you dive deep into the research, you see why there’s a higher prevalence of problem gambling among the homeless population versus the general public. However, financial crises are not necessarily the leading cause of gambling problems among homeless individuals. For some, gambling could simply be the difference between having a bite to eat and going hungry or having a warm place to stay and sleeping on the street.
However a homeless individual becomes involved in gambling activities, it’s apparent intervention is needed to help these individuals overcome their problems and realize a better future. Homeless organizations could provide resources for detecting problems and offer support specifically designed to address gambling issues. (The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey recently held a webinar on this topic; to view, please go to the following link: Webinars | 800-Gambler | 800gambler.org)
Does Gambling Contribute to Homelessness?
While gambling problems are seen more frequently in homeless individuals than in the general population, we cannot say gambling is a direct cause of homelessness. In fact, many homeless individuals did not start gambling until after they became homeless.
However, there are certainly individuals who lost their homes due to gambling. When you play gambling games for an extended period of time, you are at risk of falling into unmanageable debt, experiencing relationship problems, losing your support networks, and suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, all of which can lead to housing instability and homelessness. As they play, gamblers must be aware of all the potential outcomes of their actions.
Are Homeless Individuals at Risk of Developing a Gambling Problem?
Now that we’ve examined how gambling can possibly lead to homelessness when not properly monitored, we need to look at the relationship between problem gambling and homelessness in individuals who became homeless even before they ever placed a bet or bought a lottery ticket. Could these individuals be at risk of developing a gambling disorder at some point in their lives?
Homeless individuals are not guaranteed to have a problem with gambling or even gamble. However, the percentage of people in the homeless population who have a gambling problem is greater than the percentage of people in the general population. Why is this? Well, it could be because gamblers see gambling as a way to end their poverty and be able to afford a place to live. More specifically, gambling is a way to:
- Experience Hope: Living on the streets and not having a permanent place to return to at the end of a day is dreary and draining. No one wants to live like this forever, and gambling gives individuals the hope they’ll win big and be able to buy themselves a house. It also gives them the hope they will no longer be viewed as less than.
- Escape: Homeless individuals have very little to look forward to and often lack the support they need from others. To escape the stresses of life, they may turn to gambling. The warm, inviting atmosphere of the casinos gives them a place to relax and leave their problems behind for a little while.
- Feel Connected to Others: People living in homelessness are used to being looked down upon and excluded from normal activities and places, but this does not mean they like these feelings of isolation. Instead, they try to get rid of the loneliness by visiting casinos to feel a sense of belonging.
As you can see, there are many underlying reasons people living in homelessness may start gambling. It is not as cut-and-dry as saying they gamble because they need the money.
Reduce the Connection Between Gambling and Homelessness
While more studies are needed to finish drawing the link between problem gambling and homelessness, the existing studies are sufficient to show that gambling problems need to be identified and monitored in homeless shelters. Additionally, gambling treatment and prevention programs need to be more readily available to the homeless population. Once service providers, government agencies, and communities take action, we’ll hopefully see a future where gambling is not an issue among individuals across the country.
If you or someone you know needs help with a gambling problem in NJ, call 1-800-GAMBLER for support and hope. You can also join Gamblers Anonymous Zoom meetings for additional encouragement and connection with other individuals who have experienced the same things.