Australia – Problem gambling a ‘root cause of homelessness’ (2)

By Daniel Hoare

Research has pointed to a link between problem gambling and homelessness. While the Federal Government has been quick to act on its election promise to address homelessness, there are calls for the Prime Minister to extend the action to include problem gambling. Social researchers say addiction to gambling is one of the root causes of homelessness and that Kevin Rudd needs to address it.

Mr Rudd initially went about examining homelessness with little fanfare but now that he is loudly trumpeting his intention to do something about the homeless problem, there are some who believe he should just as carefully examine one of the reasons behind it. Problem gambling has long been an area of debate in Australia, but it is an area that has not been examined closely since a Productivity Commission report in 1999. But research has pointed to a link between problem gambling and homelessness – put simply, somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of the homeless population is there because of a gambling addiction.

Gabriela Byrne once had a costly addiction to poker machines but she now runs a service helping others with the same problem. She told ABC radio’s The World Today about one of her current clients. “He worked very high up in the corporate industry. He had a beautiful home, a loving family. He lost millions of money to poker machines,” she said.

His wife supported him for 15 years, close to 15 years. They’re now divorced. “He, for many weeks, had to sleep in a hostel and on the streets, and now lives in a very, very small commission housing flat.”

Ms Byrne says her current client is but one of many problem gamblers she has seen end up on the streets. And she is among a number of social workers and researchers calling for the Federal Government to add a wide-ranging investigation into problem gambling to its inquiry into homelessness.

Financial, family strains

Charles Livingstone, from Monash University’s School of Health Sciences, says there is a link between the incidence of problem gambling and the rate of homelessness in the general community. “That’s not to say that everyone who has a problem with gambling is going to become homeless,” he said.

“But there’s no doubt that anything which causes a dissolution of family life imposes extreme financial stress on individuals and families and so on is likely to have an impact on the rate of homelessness, and there is no doubt further that gambling falls into that category.”

Dr Livingstone says an examination of problem gambling should be a high priority for Mr Rudd, given that such a study has not been carried out for nearly a decade. “If we were to re-examine the costs and benefits of gambling with … another nine years or so of experience under our belts then we would have to start looking at a broader range of social issues than were examined in that inquiry,” he said.

“These would include a more detailed understanding of the relationship between problem gambling and homelessness, between problem gambling and crime, between gambling and the break-up of families and so on.”

Government inquiry needed

Dr Livingstone says there is one particular area of gambling the Federal Government needs to investigate. “There is no doubt that poker machines cause the overwhelming majority of problem gambling in Australia, and there are a number of reasons for that,” he said.

“One of them is that poker machines are ubiquitous in most Australian states and territories, the only exception to that being WA where they’re not allowed outside the casino.

“But in every other Australian state and territory, pokies proliferate in pubs and clubs and almost on every street corner in some places.

“So, what that means is you just can’t get away from them, even if you’re trying very hard not to play them, they are there and they’re very hard to avoid. “