Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The gamblers

For homeless gamblers life is NOT like this, but it may be how they see themselves.
The one addiction that gets far less attention than what it merits out here in Homeless World Sacramento is gambling. It’s the “odd man out” because this destructive addiction doesn’t send wily brain-altering toxins up into your head, and because (to my knowledge and from my research, anyway) there aren’t group meetings set up that directly target homeless gamblers and there aren’t homeless-gambler Rehab programs, that might be beneficial. [One reason for no rehab is that you can’t do a pee test for gambling, not that I know for sure that the mission wouldn't accept a gambler into its program.]

Another reason gambling gets overlooked is that there is uncertainty in the psychiatric community about how to best understand being self-destructively attracted to gambling: Is it an impulse disorder? an obsessive-compulsive disorder? or a true addiction?

Yet, for now, at least, the DSM-IV [The most-current edition of the manual of mental disorders used in the United States] criteria for pathological gambling is characterized by continued gambling despite harmful consequences. [And for my money (not that I’m a betting man), using homeless services to enable one’s gambling is a plenty harmful consequence, all by itself.]

Whereas those other addictions -- to mind-altering substances, including alcohol, crack, pot and methamphetamine -- are expensive, “homeless gambling,” from my observation, can be more so, impoverishing even those who have incomes such that they could have a quality ‘normal’ life. And the gamblers, like other addicts, are apt to bilk others out of money — or borrow from others, and, often, only very slowly, if ever, pay back what is owed.

One thing that’s diabolically different about gambling, as compared to substance abuse, is that, occasionally, it pays off. A gambler can hope to win! And, of course, they all do have that hope. With just a little more skill or a little more luck, what had been a life marbled with pain, loss and drudgery can be transformed into The Good Life — or so a gambler can think.

From the website AddictionSearch, the social costs of Pathological Gambling are described:

The costs of being a gambling addict are not only financial. The toll on the family and others around the individual can be psychologically agonizing. Social turbulence can result in marital breakdown, financial ruin and irreparable personal profile. The individual with a gambling problem may develop physical symptoms which may include depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and hypertension. Alcoholism consumption and smoking are associated features.

As the course of the disorder progresses, the individual may develop working difficulties. It is at this moment in time, that the individual may venture in criminal activities to obtain more funds for his addiction. It is not uncommon for the individual to have borrowed large sums of money from numerous colleagues at work- all the money usually is never repaid.
The gamblers out in Homeless World Sacramento expend as much of their income as they can on their gambling habit, and then use housing and food resources that are supposed to be there for “legitimately” poor and homeless people. In this, again, the modus opperandi for “homeless” addicted gamblers corresponds to that of substance abusers with their “happy checks”: Income gets diverted from being used “to live on” to “the bad habit,” and services that are supposed to be there for the “genuinely” poor are co-opted by the addict to sustain illicit uses of income.

There are seven homeless men that I know, or have known, who have been engrossed with gambling. I present the stories of five, below. The story for each is unique, but in some ways the pattern of gambling, for them as a group, is the same.

All are/were “autonomous men” who insisted on controlling their own lives, living independently, and in a way that was hidden from whatever estranged family they had. One, with a substantial income, hadn’t seen his loving spouse, who was far distant, in more than a year; it was a visit he kept putting off.

The high-income homeless gamblers
Two homeless gambling addicts had incomes of three or four thousand dollars a month, yet lived minimally such that they could indulge frequent and, for them, fabulous “vacations.”

Case #1: One man was in his late 80s, in a wheelchair, and stayed at a shelter. Some mornings, he would get on the bus to get to one of the local casinos he liked.

This old old man would sometimes tell me about when he was young and was a mobster who engaged in notorious activities in Las Vegas. He told me that when he was young, he was “a bad, bad boy” — and by that I took it to mean the whole of the period before he got old.

In recent months, his very advanced age was getting the best of him. He grew cantankerous and would sometimes forget his own name. Last I heard, he was diagnosed as being past the early stages of dementia and had left the VOA shelter for a nursing home.  It is believed that he was a favorite of the casinos, in part, because he would get confused and forget to pick up his winnings, sometimes.

Case #2: The other high-income homeless gambler would spend time living large at Cache Creek or Thunder Valley. He would get mailings and offers from those two casinos notifying him of events, entertainers and specials he could take advantage of. I don’t know firsthand from this fellow his gambling adventures (he was quiet about this aspect of his life), but a mutual friend told me that he and #2 often gambled together. Heavy gambling would explain the cashflow problems #2 had, which would otherwise be inexplicable for someone with so much income.

#2 was known for running out of gas money then not being able to pay people back quickly, as promised. Recently, he borrowed a large amount from a terrific homeless guy, and, after a month, #2 refused to so much as make contact with the guy. When last spoken to, #2 had abandoned his three email accounts and didn’t have a phone.

For someone who certainly wasn’t really poor, it was troubling to me that #2 was someone who would grab as much of the free bounty of things that is available in Homeless World than anyone. He would get the free meals, free clothes, free backpacks and whatever, and go to more than one Veterans’ Stand Down [for homeless vets] where, among all else, a veteran would get a couple-hundred dollars worth of ‘stuff.’

Also, he was keenly competitive for getting a bed or being one of the first in line for a meal at the mission. He would come at the last minute and dart past others, who’d been waiting hours, to get in the gate, and, thus, beat out these others at getting a bed for the night. He would also dart into the chapel when the doors opened to be seated such that he’d be one of the first to be fed.

Other gamblers
Case #3: Another gambler I know uses his SSI check for frequent trips to Reno. His keen interest is betting on sports events. He maintains encyclopedic knowledge of sports teams, analyses situations and makes well-informed decisions in placing his wagers.

I believe he thinks he comes out ahead, in the long run, in his gambling, though it all is more than offset by the costs of travel and hotel stays. He also has the expense of a usually-illegal substance he legally uses to alleviated back pain. He returns to Sacramento, frequently, to live at the expense of homeless-services providers and to get a cash infusion from his payee.

Case #4: Yet another gambler I know plays poker, and understands very well what he’s doing. In many ways this fellow is fully admirable. He has many friends that offer him an occasional odd job when he finds himself down on his luck. [Unlike the other gamblers in this blogpost, #4 does not have any disability (or retirement) income, though he had a serious injury in the past, that pains him, and possibly could qualify him for disability.]

Like the sports-team bettor, #4 is a skilled gambler who understands the game he plays such that he can maximize his chances of coming out ahead in the long run. Still, he is often in a circumstance of being completely out of cash and needing to be on the lookout for snipes (discarded cigarettes that still have a few puffs left). When he’s flat busted, he uses homeless services, including the mission as a place to stay, though more often he sleeps outside.

Case #5: A once-successful businessman, #5 lost everything, emanating from a crazy dispute with his wife. His road back to normalcy got off track when a truck he owned and operated was in an accident while he was uninsured, pushing him into despondency and a circumstance of homelessness.

He started gambling at the casinos, at first mostly to take advantage of free lunch buffets. but then got hooked on the whole of the experience, in particular the excitement of winning at the tables.

I remember once talking to #5 while seeing him sneakily move a pen of mine that was on a table into his lap. Another time I remember, I saw him happy, flashing a wallet full of twenties.

A tragic accident involving one of the casino buses and the failing economy put an end to the buffet promotion to pull in poor or middle-class gamblers. This dislodged #5 from his gambling habit. Shortly thereafter, he hooked up with another businessman from his Asian country of origin, found housing, and made a start at getting his life in order, again.

The last couple times I’ve spoken with him, #5 was well-dressed and gave me a few bucks. He wished me good fortune at discovering, how I, like him, could find whatever my unique pathway out of the homelessness trap is.

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