Gambling is a Problem at Toronto Homeless Shelters

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Gambling is a Problem at Toronto Homeless Shelters

Two studies are informing how the Good Shepherd assists its clients.


Matte Black began living on the streets when he was 15. He’d come home inebriated on a few occasions, and was kicked out of the house. For nine years, he was in and out of several homeless shelters in Toronto.

During that time, at the shelters, Black would see people gambling, often 30 to 40 minutes of gameplay that would involve dice or cards, with a pot under $100. He’d play a couple of times of week.

They were looking for ways to better their situation financially in the moment, he says.

“There was never any big money or anything, but there definitely was a lot of (gambling),” Black recalls. “It’s quite similar to friends coming together for a drink at the end of a long day at work, just talking, laughing—definitely no violence involved.”

Gambling has been analyzed at Toronto homeless shelters in recent years.

A prevalence study [PDF] published online in February 2014 in collaboration with Good Shepherd Ministries, which provides food, clothing, shelter, and other social and health services to clientele who are mostly men, found both problem and pathological gambling to be common.

In 2013, 264 adult men were recruited and interviewed at Good Shepherd Ministries in Toronto. Eight per cent were identified as at risk of problem gambling, 10 per cent met the criteria for lifetime problem gambling, and 25 per cent met the criteria for pathological gambling. Of those who participated in gambling, 58 per cent were lifetime pathological gamblers.

The prevalence study set the stage for further research in Ontario on problem gambling among people facing poverty and homelessness. An additional study published this year was conducted in Toronto involving 30 men at the Good Shepherd between the ages of 26 to 77, with an average age of 48 years old.

These men found there to be a lack of one-on-one “therapeutic relationships” in their experiences with health and social services, which they feel are “critical aspects of the recovery process.”

The 2016 study defines problem gambling as having “difficulties in limiting money and/or time spent on gambling which leads to adverse consequences for the gambler, others, or for the community,” while pathological gambling is “synonymous with severe problem gambling.”

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, pathological gamblers are those “unable to control the urge to gamble,” and are “more likely to use gambling to escape from problems and to get relief from anxiety.”

The 2016 paper notes “the potential associations of poverty and housing instability with financial risk taking behaviour. One explanation is that individuals may exhibit more risky behaviour as a means to exit situations of extreme poverty, or alternatively gambling behavior may contribute to poverty and housing instability.”

During the study’s screening process, many of the participants didn’t realize they had a gambling problem until they were screened, says Flora Matheson, a research scientist at the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital and lead investigator of both studies.

“It’s not (just) that gambling is taking place at Good Shepherd. It’s that (staff are) seeing people with complex needs, and part of that complex health and social need is around issues of problem gambling,” Matheson says.

Photo by BruceK from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by BruceK from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Today, Marilyn Joyce is an author and public speaker, but at 14, she was a runaway, eating food out of garbage cans to survive.

She lived out of old warehouses and on the streets near Ryerson University for nearly a year and a half, where she witnessed people participate in sex work, drugs and alcohol use, and gambling.

Most kids who end up homeless come from very traumatic homes, she says. Her mother was schizophrenic and her father was an alcoholic.

“I was addicted to drama, and what comes with drama? Living the high life, living the wild life, living the crazy life, and gambling is part of that,” Joyce says. “You’ll find some people will gravitate towards the gambling, others towards sex, others towards food, others towards alcohol and drugs, and sometimes a mixture of all of those, because an addictive personality will just substitute one addiction for another.”

Too, there’s always that hope that you may win—and anytime you have a small win, that could lead to a big win, on a roll for something even bigger, she adds.

Of course, not every experience is the same. For Emily Wright, who became homeless in Toronto at 18 and lived on the streets for a year, gambling wasn’t something she witnessed or participated in.

“I never knew anyone who had enough money to gamble with,” she says. “It is definitely living day-by-day and dollar-by-dollar. There was never any savings. There was never any ability to even buy a pack of cigarettes.”

The Good Shepherd is using the studies to inform their practices—they weren’t just an academic exercise, says Aklilu Wendaferew, assistant executive director of Good Shepherd Ministries in Toronto.

“We’ve taken some immediate action to specifically identify people that have gambling issues within the client population that access our services,” Wendaferew says.

Staff have started asking clients to participate in a brief assessment, and if gambling is an issue for them, support can be provided.

Black, who went on to found Heroes in Black, a Toronto not-for-profit that provides assistance to homeless and at-risk youth, doesn’t think the gambling he saw in shelters over the years was addictive behaviour—it was a way to pass the time and have some fun, he says.

But there are more serious examples.

Shane (whose name is a pseudonym for confidentiality) was one of the 30 men interviewed in the 2016 study. In it, he says some people are spending what money they do have on gambling or other addictions, collecting a $1,000 Ontario Disability Support Program cheque that’s gone by the next day.

“They’re in [the service agency and staff ask], ‘What happened?’

‘I gambled it all away, or I smoked crack all night, and I’m broke.'”

People with gambling problems need to have less power in the short term, he says in the study, and better guidance to help them in the long term when it comes to handling their finances, including an automatic payment system to cover important bills, such as housing and groceries.

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