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Gambling and homelessness among older Victorians


Dr Brian Vandenberg from Monash University’s Behavioural Sciences Research Laboratory

Homelessness is one of the most significant harms associated with gambling, with ripple effects often reaching partners, friends and the wider family and having inter-generational consequences. Older people present the fastest growing proportion of the homeless population in Australia, but the relationship with gambling has received little research attention.

A recent exploratory study was prompted by pre-COVID-19 data showing an increasing number of older people presenting to Gambler’s Help services in Victoria.

‘There’s considerable empirical research showing that financial harm from gambling falls disproportionately on socio-economically vulnerable groups where it exacerbates the cycle of poverty,’ says lead researcher Dr Brian Vandenberg from Monash University’s Behavioural Sciences Research Laboratory.

Living with poverty

‘The stress and strain of living with poverty can really contribute to decision making that reinforces poverty.’

The study considered ‘older people’ as 50+ years of age. While this is a young cut-off point, it accounts for the premature aging and mortality of people who are homeless.

It considered the nature and extent of the link between gambling and homelessness by completing a review of previous research, finding that while the majority of homeless people do not gamble, those who do often experience levels of harm higher than in the general population.

Informing the study were aged care, primary care and specialist homeless services …

Factors that appear to link gambling and homelessness range from the personal such as past trauma, mental health and substance use; interpersonal factors such as relationship breakdown; and community or structural factors such as poverty and the accessibility of gambling.

Informing the study were aged care, primary care and specialist homeless services that helped to identify key themes, including the appeal of gambling; comorbidities; the recently homeless; and vulnerabilities in older age.

Job loss, retirement or loneliness might lead to high-intensity gambling and heavy losses. Being pitched into an associated financial crisis and perhaps relationship breakdown could then lead to homelessness for the first time. Social exclusion and its link to mental ill-health and substance use might then lead to chronic homelessness. While the resulting despair could prove to be a motivation to gamble, so might a misplaced strategy to gamble in order to bring in money to create shelter and safety once again.

Job loss, retirement or loneliness might lead to high-intensity gambling …

‘While gambling and homelessness are interconnected, the links are often quite indirect,’ says Dr Vandenberg. ‘The connecting pathways are often contingent on underlying interpersonal conditions and contexts and difficult to untangle.’

The study provides rich anecdotal evidence from the interview subjects.

A housing support worker observed that ‘…the loneliness … and the disengagement is what people tell me is part of the compulsion to gamble’. Another said that ‘the other thing we hear from clients … is that they’re more likely to gamble after using alcohol’.

A worker from a homelessness service argued that gambling was an overlooked issue. ‘I don’t think we ask enough questions… It’s not in any assessment forms I see for housing.’

Another commented on the vicious cycle apparent in housing support: ‘… gambling meant that he couldn’t afford accommodation anymore, and he became homeless. The same as any form of addiction, which came first?’

‘… gambling meant that he couldn’t afford accommodation anymore …’

These workers on the frontline are sharply aware that homelessness can increase vulnerability to gambling, with broad access to gambling products increasing the risk.

So how do services identify the link between gambling and homelessness and how can their response be improved to minimise and prevent these twin harms?

‘Our findings do broadly align with the research from other countries,’ continues Dr Vandenberg. ‘They show that mechanisms in the gambling and homelessness relationship appear to depend on a merging of individual vulnerabilities, personal crises and traumatic life events, housing and financial problems, and, quite critically, the accessibility of commercial gambling to vulnerable older adults.

‘Homelessness in older adults should be recognised as a marker for increased risk of gambling and harm, so improving housing security represents an important preventative measure.’

Study recommendations

The researchers recommend expanding routine screening and early detection of gambling issues in homeless services. They believe that, along with greater access to financial counselling services, these measures would serve to combat the stigma of gambling which currently keeps it a hidden issue in this older age group.

The study also endorses regulatory controls such as restricting the marketing and accessibility of gambling to complement this preventative approach.

The exploratory study was completed under a Foundation Early Career Researcher grant to Dr Vandenberg with the support of mentors Professor Kerry O’Brien, Associate Professor Charles Livingstone and Associate Professor Adrian Carter of Monash University. Its findings have been used to inform the recent Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness.

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