Gambling and Homelessness Go Together Like Thelma and Louise

Casinos cause more problems than they solve.

With a new advertising blitz and a new $2.4 billion casino, Atlantic City was betting on a comeback this summer. Instead, the stabbing deaths of two tourists in broad daylight last week outside of the Bally’s casino underscored the seedy side of Atlantic City that officials like to gloss over. (Disclosure: I edit an anti-gambling blog.)

In an effort to reassure tourists that it was safe to go back into the casinos, Governor Chris Christie came to town and drank a beer at the Irish Pub. Keep drinking, guv. The problems of Atlantic City are big and deep, and can’t be fixed by a new slogan and another casino.

To be sure, the 10 a.m. murders of the two Asian women from Canada were random and could have happened anywhere. But the victims were no doubt in Atlantic City because of the casinos. The alleged killer was a homeless woman with mental problems.

An Inquirer story last week inferred that many surrounding towns send their homeless to Atlantic City’s shelters and soup kitchens via buses. William Southrey, president of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, called it “Greyhound therapy.”

Perhaps. But the story offered no evidence to support Southrey’s claim. This much is true: There is a link between gambling and increased homelessness. Several years after casinos came to Atlantic City, the Associated Press reported on a study that found half of the city’s homeless arrived after the casinos opened.

A 2003 survey of 120 homeless living in the Rescue Mission found that 20 percent listed gambling as a contributing factor to their plight. The Mission’s own website says the arrival of casinos led to an increase in homeless in Atlantic City.

The 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission, the definitive study on gambling in America, found that “individuals with gambling problems seem to constitute a higher percentage of the homeless population.” The commission said the Atlantic City Rescue Mission reported that 22 percent of its clients are homeless due to a gambling problem.

In a survey of 1,100 clients at Rescue Missions nationwide, 18 percent cited gambling as a cause of their homelessness. Interviews with more than 7,000 homeless individuals in Las Vegas revealed that 20 percent reported a gambling problem.

So clearly, casinos contribute to homelessness. That seems like a detail other communities and lawmakers should keep in mind when considering whether or not to legalize casinos. In short, some of today’s gamblers eventually end up broke and on the street, costing taxpayers’ money to feed and take care of them.

In fact, gambling has been linked to other problems such as increases in crime, bankruptcy, divorce and suicide. As such, it is fair to argue that gambling leads to deeper social and economic problems that undermine the jobs and tax revenue that come from casinos.

That is not to say the casinos are to blame for last week’s murder in Atlantic City. But the grizzly deaths underscore the 30-year failure of gambling to revitalize the struggling Jersey Shore town. If anything, gambling has brought more problems to Atlantic City than it has solved.

Despite the billions of dollars that have flowed through the casinos over the years, Atlantic City remains a poor, corrupt and dysfunctional city. Outside the gleaming casinos, the desolate streets are littered with homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes.

Pawn shops, pay-day lenders and soup kitchens abound, save for a couple block stretch of attractive retail outlets. The casinos have not spurred much other commercial development. The residential real estate boom that has lifted the surrounding Jersey Shore points has largely skipped past Atlantic City.

After the murder of the tourists, the Daily News was rightly chastised for its over-the-top headline calling Atlantic City a “Tourist Death Trap.” Ironically, the alleged killer is from Philadelphia—a city that knows a thing or two about murders.

But the heinous murders highlight a larger point regarding the failure of casinos to transform Atlantic City. At the end of the day, gambling strips wealth from communities, leads to more social problems and generates little economic spin off.

Instead, most of Atlantic City’s “tourists” gamble and go home. That may be good for the casinos’ bottom line and government coffers, but most everyone else loses.