Br. Tom Liss, OH, Director of Hospitality and Shelter Services, left, and Aklilu Wendaferew, assistant executive director of Toronto's Good Shepherd Photo by Evan Boudreau

Good Shepherd tackles gambling addiction among homeless

  • April 18, 2017

The Good Shepherd Ministries is finding yet one more way it can help the homeless and vulnerable.

With the help of a $759,000 grant from Ontario’s Local Poverty Reduction Fund, the charity is tackling the issue of problem gambling among the homeless.

“Definitely it is a challenging process. At the end of the tunnel there is some light thought,” said Aklilu Wendaferew, assistant executive director of Toronto's Good Shepherd. “We're trying to help them to help themselves and bring to their attention the issues this is causing in their life and ... to show them the advantage of change compared to continuing the same lifestyle.”

The grant is being used to launch a three-year pilot project aimed at gambling addiction, a problem not defined by the amount of money you spend but rather by the negative impacts on your life, Wendaferew said.

“The issue of gambling is not how much money you spend,” he said. “If you have a small amount of money and spend a significant amount of it for gambling that counts.”

But convincing people to see it that way is not as fast and easy as gambling itself.

As part of their project, Good Shepherd recently hired two case workers who will work with the homeless across the city to address the specific issues related to gambling .

“We will do very extensive outreach work to reach out to the homeless people,” Wendaferew said. “The two case workers will go to different shelters, withdrawal centres, addiction programs and drop-in centres to reach out to the homeless people who are experiencing gambling problems.”

Good Shepherd will also be implementing cognitive behavioural groups, establishing gambling relapse prevention programs and will partner with Gambling Anonymous groups.

The project is the result of research conducted by Good Shepherd in partnership with the Centre for Urban Health Solutions and St. Michael's Hospital, accessing the impact of gambling on Toronto's homeless. The research, which began in 2013, determined that about 35 per cent of those interviewed met the criteria for problem gambling with 25 per cent demonstrating signs of active pathological gambling.

“What we found was very astonishing,” said Wendaferew. “We were surprised to find that there was so much of an issue of gambling with our client population.”

By comparison, only about 4 per cent of the Canadian population have an active gambling problem.

While many are lured into gambling through glamourizing advertisement Wendaferew said the reasons why people continue to gambling, even after losing their home, varies greatly.

“Some people do it because they look at it as leisure time, something for fun,” he said. “Other people do it because they feel that they can get off the streets by winning big. There are a number of different factors but at the basis of all of that is the addictive behaviour.”

The number of gambling addiction services has risen in recent years, but none of them speak specifically to the homeless in Toronto, said Wendaferew.

“There is really no one in Toronto providing that kind of support specially for the homeless with problem or pathological gambling,” he said.

Good Shepherd will also work with St. Michael's Hospital during the pilot project to conduct further research regarding gambling among the homeless.

“There are so many compounded issues that might need to be addressed,” said Wendaferew. “That makes it very very difficult to treat gambling addictions. You can't minimize how hard it is when you are addicted to something.

“It is just very difficult to change your behaviour or even to have an insight and understanding that this is really a problem.”

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