WASHINGTON — The Rev. Stephen Burger has always said gambling caused homelessness. For 35 years, he ran missions for the homeless in Washington, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, and there he saw firsthand the damage gambling caused the people that passed through his missions. But until now, he didn't know how widespread the problem was.
A recently released survey conducted by the International Union of Gospel Missions (IUGM) - of which Mr. Burger has been executive director since 1991 - offers compelling evidence of a link between gambling and homelessness. Indeed, according the survey, nearly 1 in 5 homeless men and women cite gambling as a cause of their situation. And as lawmakers nationwide continue to debate the social costs of gambling, these new findings are becoming a key weapon for antigambling legislators.
The survey, conducted at 42 shelters nationwide, was released in advance of today's meeting of the National Gambling Impact Study - a commission set up in 1996 to study gambling's effect on unemployment, homelessness, crime, and other social ills. The meeting, in Boston, will focus on native American gaming issues and also the impact of state lotteries - a topic the survey deals with extensively.
It finds that 70 percent of the men and women in rescue missions believe the prevalence of gambling opportunities, including state lotteries, makes it difficult for them to put their lives back together. And perhaps most startling, nearly 40 percent said that even though they are homeless, they still occasionally gamble, with the lotteries by far the preferred method - 86 percent saying they used to play, or still play.
"The problem has grown, and continues to grow," says Burger, who adds that he was surprised by how dramatic the statistics are. "State lotteries and the rise of legal casino gambling are creating a new generation of homeless addicts. And ... the man or woman stumbling into our missions, addicted to gambling, is just as sick as the person addicted to alcohol and drugs. The addiction may be ... mental, but the shattering of the human spirit is the same."
Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Association, said the survey was simply an attempt to tarnish the gaming industry. "The fact is that homelessness in this country is a complex issue with many facets," he said.
Mr. Fahrenkopf's group maintains that less than 2 percent of the people who gamble in casinos become addicted to it. But experts in gambling addiction say it's a growing problem and not enough is done to help the victims.
The IUGM survey is stirring interest on Capitol Hill. Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri called the findings a "fireball in the night, warning America against the terrible effects of gambling."
It "should be required reading for the national commission, for public officials who are lobbied by gambling interests ... and for citizens who are asked to vote on propositions to legalize gambling," he adds.
Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, who appeared at the press conference releasing the report, also praised it, saying it was the kind of "reliable data" the commission needs "to make important and long-lasting decisions."
* Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.