Sebastopol Library Community Hub will open its doors until 10pm on Thursdays as part of a new program working to prevent vulnerable community members from losing their money on the pokies.
The Ballarat library is joining the Libraries After Dark program that is focused on engaging at-risk communities and those most vulnerable to social isolation in free community evening activities, as an alternative to gambling venues.
It is important we see gambling in a mental health light and see it as an addiction like any other.- Michaela Settle, Buninyong MP
Ballarat Libraries executive manager learning and community hubs Jenny Fink said she advocated for the program to be run in Sebastopol after she saw how night activities at Darebin Library provided a place of interaction for community members who were lonely at home.
"If this program keeps people from walking through the front door of a pokies venue and putting money into a machine, if it creates an inclusive place where they can connect with other people in the community who are also lonely, that would be brilliant," she said.
The Sebastopol Bowling Club, one of Ballarat's biggest gambling venues, is just 350 metres from the Sebastopol Library.
The 50 pokie machines at the bowling club took in $5.15 million in the 2018-2019 financial year, the fifth highest takings of the 14 pokies venues in Ballarat.
The Victorian government announced $64,000 would be provided to Sebastopol Library to run the Libraries After Dark program for two years on Tuesday, money part of an overall investment of $1 million to expand the program to 10 libraries throughout Victoria.
The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation first piloted the program at libraries in Moreland, Darebin, Hume and Whittlesea in 2017.
The expansion of the program to Ballarat comes after data released in July showed the the city's pokies losses had reached a record high.
Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Registration data shows gaming patrons lost more than $57.54 million to electronic gaming machines in the City of Ballarat in the 2018/19 financial year, equating to $152,778 spent on the pokies per day.
City of Ballarat councillor Belinda Coates has been vocal in her opposition to the pokies.
She said she commended the Libraries After Dark program as a positive initiative promoting social inclusion in Ballarat, but said the state government needed to better regulate the gambling industry to make 'strong' and 'meaningful' change.
"The program does have a broad range of potential positive impacts, but it is likely have minimal impact in the big picture," Cr Coates said.
"The state government should be stepping in to regulate the industry, but unfortunately the state government has a conflict of interest because it receives tax from gaming machines."
The Ballarat Interagency Taskforce on Gambling has long advocated for the implementation of recommendations from the 2010 Gambling Productivity Commission including a maximum $1 bet, bans on cash withdrawals at venues and greater power for councils to reduce pokies numbers.
Meanwhile, Buninyong MP Michaela Settle told The Courier her focus was to create preventative models to address gambling and to address it in the context of mental health issues.
She said she had made a submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System for gambling addiction to be considered in the same public health space as drug and alcohol addiction.
"The Libraries After Dark program is a perfect example of preventative health," she said.
"It is not necessarily about getting the complete addict, it is about engaging people who are at risk of gambling harm.
"I have experienced severe gambling harm. My marriage ended as a consequence. I look back on those times and I think if there had been prevention models in place, perhaps if his doctor had asked a few questions, we might not have got the bitter end we got to.
"It is important we see gambling in a mental health light and see it as an addiction like any other."
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A state government spokesperson said the government had introduced a suite of reforms to reduce harm from pokies including limiting EFTPOS cash withdrawals to $500 per card in 24 hours and capping the number of gaming machines in the state at the current level until 2042.
Around 115,000 Australians were categorised as "problem gamblers" in the 2010 Productivity Commission report.
It said Australian adults had a higher chance of being a problem gambler than using heroin or being hospitalised as a result of a traffic accident.
Ballarat Community Health research co-ordinator Dr Deb Greenslade has completed a PhD on the community impacts of pokie machine gambling.
She said gambling harm had a strong relationship with family violence, mental health and financial hardship, which impacted children and families.
"It makes already difficult circumstances more entrenched and entrenches disadvantage within our communities," Dr Greenslade said.
"Some people think gambling venues provide a safe, comfortable and welcoming space... but we know they are really unsafe spaces for people to go to because of the issue of gambling harm and financial losses.
"It is lovely the library can provide a safe welcoming space for people to come together as a community."
The Sebastopol Library was reopened in January after extensive renovations.
City of Ballarat South Ward councillor Des Hudson said the brand new Sebastopol Library was a great space to test the model of providing extended library hours.
"The program funding is about gambling but the benefit is for all members of the community through increased operating hours for libraries," he said.
READ MORE: Sebastopol library opens to the public
Potential program activities include trivia nights, open mic session, science and robotics sessions, live performances, guest speakers, cooking lessons, exercise classes, craft workshops and movie nights.
The Thursday night activities are expected to begin before the end of the year when funding is provided.
Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation interim evaluation data of original Libraries After Dark sites show almost 8000 people had attended sessions since 2017.
It was found there was an increased understanding in communities the library could offer an alternative social and recreation option at night time, there was increased participation at night time, an increased understanding of library staff about gambling harm, risks and stigma of those affected, and potential for library staff to engage and provide support.
If you or someone you know needs gambling support, contact Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858 or contact CAFS Ballarat on 5337 3333.
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