CLEVELAND — Casino gambling is coming to one of America's poorest cities, and with the glitz and new jobs it'll bring to Cleveland, the games of chance are also likely to attract troubled gamblers.
And the convenience will increase the number of chronic gamblers willing to lie, cheat or steal to get a fix, experts agree.
"Because we are bringing the gambling closer to home, the problem's going to be closer to home," said Laura Clemens, who directs the responsible gambling program for the Ohio Casino Control Commission, created to regulate the new casino industry.
Voters approved four casinos in 2009 for Ohio, in part with the promise of jobs for a Rust Belt state hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Last year, the Census Bureau ranked Cleveland, with a 34 percent poverty rate, the third-poorest big city in the U.S. Cincinnati ranked seventh with 30.6 percent of residents living in poverty.
Opponents, led by church groups, warned that casinos would lead to more troubled gamblers. Ohio's first casino opens in mid-May in Cleveland, with Toledo's to follow in two weeks and the Cincinnati and Columbus casinos next year.
The risk the casinos bring was underscored by a pair of military veterans who have sought treatment for their gambling problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs' only residential treatment center for troubled gamblers. The pair talked to The Associated Press about their gambling ordeals, but insisted on anonymity to protect their privacy.
A female Army vet who is an admitted longtime problem gambler said she started with bingo and card parties as a teen and that casino gambling pushed her over the edge, ruining her family life and prompting her to rip through $1 million in losses.
"I got so addicted to it so fast, that's kind of like all I wanted to do," said the 49-year-old from Chicago. And, now in Ohio, "here comes the casinos. The casinos, oh, my God," she said.
The other veteran, a 36-year-old former Marine from Dallas, predicted the convenience of having casinos nearby instead of having to pay for travel would push more people into trouble.
"My compulsion definitely drove me to the nearest casino, so location has a lot to do with it," he said while sitting in a sparsely furnished counseling room.
Jennifer Clegg, gambling program supervisor with the Recovery Resources counseling agency in Cleveland, expects to get busier soon.
"We would anticipate that, with casinos coming, we would see these numbers increasing," she said.
"For someone who's in a lower socio-economic status, they just can't jump in the car and drive to Detroit or drive to Pennsylvania but they can hop on RTA (buses or trains) and go downtown, so there's a little more easy access."
An estimated 2 million to 5 million Americans have some sort of gambling problem, according to a 1999 study by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which estimated another 15 million are at risk.
It might be hard for casual gamblers to understand the compulsion that drives some, said Heather Chapman, who directs the Veterans Administration's gambling treatment program in Cleveland.
"Their brain lights up almost as if they'd won," she said, and that "explains why someone will keep going despite having loss after loss after loss."
For problems that do arise, services are in place to help gambling addicts.
Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland city councilman with a background in social work, also expects to see more people with gambling problems when the casinos open. He says many have pre-existing issues that may finally be addressed with programs sponsored by casinos and the state.
Still, he said, "I don't want to sugarcoat it. I think it is going to be an issue. I just don't think it's going to be the epidemic that people think it is."
Cimperman says social service agencies are gearing up to help. Recovery Resources expects to expand its counseling programs and the Cleveland Catholic Diocese is training priests and parish staff members to recognize warning signs.
Like many states, Ohio will have a so-called self-exclusion list that allows troubled gamblers to voluntarily be barred from a casino.
At least 12 states require casinos to implement responsible gaming policies as a condition of getting licensed, according to the American Gaming Association. Ohio will get 2 percent of casino earnings for a fund to help problem gamblers, an estimated $8 million to $9 million each year.
"It's very important as a state that we have a commitment to provide a safety net for these people, to provide the services and the treatment that they might need," Clemens said.
The commission will share a help line with the Ohio Lottery, which already supports counseling agencies that deal with troubled gamblers. It expects to expand its offerings and share programs with the casino commission.
Caesars Entertainment, a partner in the Cleveland casino, said it trains employees to watch for signs of troubled gamblers and on how to be comfortable explaining where help is available. Caesars also said it takes extra steps to watch out for underage gamblers.
The former Marine in the program, which has about 12 people per five-week session, said his interest in gambling began with dabbling in the stock market. Like the former soldier, he estimates his gambling losses surpassed $1 million.
When the market dropped, he said, "I got stressed out about the money and started gambling, then into casinos. Blackjack was really the difficult thing for me to get away from. It was fast-paced, and for me, it was highly addictive."
He worried that the casinos will lure people into betting their rent money or worse.
"When you lose that, it drives you to put more and more money toward the effort and it becomes a sinking ship," he said.
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