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Advice: Gambling it all

March 01 2015
Gambling can seem like an easy way to make a quick buck. Gambling can seem like an easy way to make a quick buck.

The appeal of gambling is easy to see, but it can become a serious and life-changing addiction

Dr Steve Sharman of the University of Cambridge has researched homelessness and gambling. And, he says, it can be hard to keep control.

Coins and notes are fed into the chosen machine, the screen illuminates with flashing lights and images, catchy music plays – all it takes to win big is to push a few buttons. You watch the reels spin, and wait, as one by one they come to a stop. Reel one is a gold coin, reel two is a gold coin and reel three is… an apple. The machine goes dark, silent, dead, and only feeding it more money can bring it back to life.

The appeal of gambling is easy to see; it offers the potential for big rewards with very little effort.

But for some people it can become a serious and life-changing addiction. My recent research, conducted at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Westminster homeless services and the National Problem Gambling Clinic, found that levels of problem gambling are more than 10 times higher in the homeless population than in the general population.

When you’re down on your luck, the temptation to try and win some extra money is strong. Even a small win can have a big effect, making the difference between eating or not, or where you sleep. This is sometimes referred to as the psycho-economics of gambling: £10 is worth more to a person with very little than £1,000 is to a wealthy person.

For most homeless gamblers I interviewed, gambling was a big factor in becoming homeless. Several told me they started gambling to pay debts, but couldn’t, resulting in rent arrears, threats and finally eviction and homelessness.

One man told me he was thrown onto the streets by his wife after his gambling lost them their family home; he was still convinced he was only one big win away from solving all his problems.

A small number of gamblers developed gambling problems after becoming homeless, explaining that some arcades are open 24 hours and offer a warm, dry and safe place to spend a few hours – provided you are gambling.

An obvious way to reduce the risk of developing gambling problems is to avoid gambling altogether. If this is not possible, a few simple measures can help a gambler stay in control; before starting to gamble, set a limit and stick to it. Don’t chase losses. If possible, don’t carry a bank card – this removes the temptation to spend more than first planned. Don’t combine gambling and alcohol; our decision-making capacities and approach to risk are known to be impaired when drunk. Finally, remember that the house always wins – in the long term, you will always be the loser.


How to get help

Gamblers can self-exclude themselves from bookies shops and arcades. This means that staff should refuse to let them place any bets, or use the machines. Gamcare provides online and telephone support for gamblers and the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London provides cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Anyone can be referred by a GP, a health worker or can self-refer.

Connection at St Martins also runs a weekly support group for gamblers who are homeless, which provides a safe space to discuss gambling problems. If you are not registered with the Passage or the Connection, call them to discuss a referral.

Gambling can be fun, but it can also be dangerous. And if it spirals out of control, help is available.

Find out more…

Gamcare: Freephone: 0808 8020 133. Daily, 8am–midnight.

National Problem Gambling Clinic, Crowther Market, 282 North End Rd, Fulham, SW6 1NH. Call 020 7381 7722; email or visit