Gaming and roaming are clearly linked. Australians over 50 are particularly vulnerable. They have high rates of regular gambling and are the fastest growing age group of homeless Australians.

Data from homelessness services across Australia reveals that older service users have the highest rates of problem gambling.

So far, little attention has been given to the issue. For example, there is no mention of gambling in any current state or territory homelessness strategy. That’s a surprising oversight, especially since Australia ranks first in the world for gambling losses per capita, according to 2016 data.

To better understand this problem, I and a research team from Monash University studied the link between gambling and homelessness in older adults.

We found that gambling and roaming often occur together, but the problem is usually hidden and poorly measured in Australia. It is therefore often overlooked by policy makers and service providers.

Higher rates of harmful gambling

We reviewed international research on how often gambling and homelessness occur together, and explored possible reasons for this among older Victorians.

Research suggests that as many as 60-80% of the general population has gambled in the past year in countries like Australia (64%), New Zealand (86%) and the United States ( 82.2%). But studies show that less than 30% of homeless people report playing the game.

Research consistently reveals that up to 80% of people have gambled. Photo: Shutterstock

However, the prevalence of harmful gambling is higher among people experiencing homelessness (10-20%) than in the general population (about 1-7%). Harmful gambling is repetitive gambling resulting in recurring harm. These include financial problems, substance abuse, and mental health issues.

This paradox – lower rates of gambling in the previous year among homeless people, but higher rates of harmful gambling – was evident in the dozen countries we looked at.

The body of research we reviewed also shows that the rate of periods of homelessness is disproportionately high among people who gamble in harmful ways.

On average, about one in six people who gamble harmfully experience housing problems or periods of homelessness.

Two way relationship

To better understand the relationship between gambling and homelessness among older adults, we surveyed 48 health, financial counselling, gambling and homelessness service workers in Victoria. We researched why gambling and roaming often occur together, and what can be done to prevent harm.

We have found that homelessness in old age is often accompanied by gambling. We also found that gambling can contribute to homelessness among older adults.

However, the link between gambling and homelessness in older adults is often complex and indirect. Often it depends on personal circumstances and societal factors beyond an individual’s control.

For example, a key factor is the isolation and difficulties of homelessness among the elderly. It makes the game attractive.

This is often compounded by a mix of individual vulnerabilities, including early life adversity, substance use, mental health issues and relationship breakdown. The fact that gambling is readily available also contributes to this, as well as poverty and housing insecurity.

This aligns with previous research showing that gambling while homeless is sometimes motivated by desperation and in the hope of financial gain.

Studies also show that the psychological effects of poverty, such as chronic stress, can create a feedback loop of behaviors and economic decision-making that reinforces disadvantage. For example, in our research, we heard that basic necessities such as housing, food and medicine were sometimes abandoned because a person had lost all their money gambling. As one participant, who works for Gambler’s Help, said:

“[…] They get so desperate that even if they have $20 left over, which they can use for food, they’d rather put it in there to double it or make some sort of jackpot.

For some people, gambling also contributes to becoming homeless for the first time in their lives in old age. As another Gambler’s Help employee put it:

“[…] I’ve met people who blame all their homelessness on gambling, and basically say, “I’m homeless because I gamble”. It’s about as simple as that.

Often those experiencing homelessness for the first time later in life have suffered large and rapid losses from high intensity gambling such as online betting or slot machines.

Major life events and changes can also trigger harmful gambling in older adults, including bereavement, job loss, or relationship difficulties. Recognizing them as potential markers of increased risk for gambling and homelessness in older adults is important for prevention.

We have found that the design of high-intensity gambling products, particularly slot machines, and the conduct of gambling operators and creditors, can accelerate gambling-related financial damages.

A homeless man sleeping under a blanket outside a building
Gambling while homeless is sometimes driven by desperation. Photo: Shutterstock

What can be done?

Measures reported by Victoria regulators to introduce new preset time and loss limits on slot machines at Crown Casino could be a step towards preventing damage.

There is also a need to develop and test individual-level interventions for homeless and gambling people. However, this can be difficult, as gambling is often hidden among older homeless adults, in part due to the stigma and shame that surrounds it. This can hamper service providers’ attempts to effectively identify gambling problems and offer help.

A related challenge is that homeless services sometimes neglect to address gambling problems because they lack the capacity to address them, or see it as a lower priority for older adults. homeless with many other urgent needs.

The recent Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness recognized that more should be done to measure the number of people who gamble and experience homelessness. The survey’s final report echoed our call to expand routine screening and early detection of problem gambling in the homeless population.

The state government’s response to the investigation is now overdue.

Meanwhile, cuts to JobSeeker and the COVID-19 supplement have led to an increase in the number of people seeking help for homelessness nationwide. And gambling losses have increased sharply since the reopening of gambling venues.

It’s time to strengthen policies and improve services that can prevent and reduce the significant but preventable harms of gambling and homelessness among older adults.

The conversation

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

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