AMSTERDAM — The men streaming in and out of a small clubhouse in east Amsterdam could almost be construction workers at the end of a hard day, taking off their orange reflective vests and cracking jokes as they suck down a few Heinekens, waiting for their paychecks.
But it’s only noon, the men are alcoholics and the beers themselves are the paycheck.
In a pilot project that has drawn attention in the Netherlands and around the world, the city has teamed up with a charity organization in hopes of improving the neighborhood and possibly improving life for the alcoholics. Not by trying to get them to stop drinking, but instead by offering to fund their habit outright.
Participants are given beer in exchange for light work collecting litter, eating a decent meal, and sticking to their schedule.
“For a lot of politicians it was really difficult to accept, ‘So you are giving alcohol?'” Amsterdam East district mayor Fatima Elatik said. “No, I am giving people a sense of perspective, even a sense of belonging. A sense of feeling that they are OK and that we need them and that we validate them and we don’t ostracize our people, because these are people that live in our district.”
In practice, the men — two groups of 10 — must show up at 9 a.m., three days a week. They start off with two beers, work a morning shift, eat lunch, get two more beers, and then do an afternoon shift before closing out with their last beer. Sometimes there’s a bonus beer. Total daily pay package: 19 euros ($25), in a mix of beer, tobacco, a meal, and ten euros cash.
Participants say a lot of that cash also goes to beer.
To understand how this all came to be, it helps to know the background. For years, a group of around 50 rowdy, aging alcoholics had plagued a park in east Amsterdam, annoying other park-goers with noise, litter and occasional harassment.
The city had tried a number of hard-handed solutions, including adding police patrols, and temporarily banning alcohol in the park outright — including for family barbecues and picnics. Elatik says the city was spending 1 million euros ($1.3 million) a year on various prevention, treatment and policing programs to deal with the problem, and nobody was satisfied.
Meanwhile, the small nonprofit Rainbow Group Foundation and its predecessors had been experimenting with ways to get help for alcoholics and drug addicts in the area.
Floor van Bakkum of the Jellinek clinic, one of the city’s best-known addiction treatment clinics, said her organization has a very different approach to treating alcoholism. She has a few reservations about the Rainbow program, but approves of it in general.
She said a “harm reduction approach” makes sense only when there is no real hope of recovery for an alcoholic.
“The Rainbow group tries to make it as easy as possible (for alcoholics) to live their lives and that they make as little as possible nuisances to the environment they are living in,” she said. “I think it is good that they are doing this.”
Amsterdam has a storied history of pragmatic solutions to social problems — ideas that often seemed immoral at the time. Prostitution, now fully legal, has been tolerated here since the 1600s, when the city was a major port. Authorities designated a Red Light District where sailors could look for sex. Marijuana use has been tolerated since the 1970s, when people realized street dealers were the main source of problems and authorities allowed weed instead to be sold in designated “coffee shops” while police looked the other way. In the 1980s and 1990s, health care charities distributed free clean needles for heroin addicts to prevent the spread of HIV.
This time, the idea was simply that troublemakers might consume less and cause less trouble if they could be lured away from their park benches with the promise of free booze. Rainbow leader Gerrie Holterman said beer was the obvious choice, because it’s easier to regulate consumption. Rainbow still harbors the ambition to get alcoholics to stop drinking and move them back to mainstream society and sees the work-for-beer program as a first step.
“I think now that we are only successful when we get them to drink less during the day and give them something to think about what they want to do with their lives,” Holterman said. “This is a start to go toward other projects and maybe another kind of job.”
She conceded there has only been one individual so far who has moved from the program to regular life. Numerous participants have found the rules too demanding and dropped out. But she said nuisance in the park has been reduced, neighbors are happy and there’s a waiting list of candidates who want to participate.
Elatik, of the Labor party, said she couldn’t quantify the cost of the current program — its budget comes partly from donations to Rainbow, partly from city funds — but it’s definitely less than 100,000 euros ($130,000).
One critic of the project is politician Marianne Poot, of the rival conservative VVD party. In a position statement on her website, she praised the idea of forcing the men — who are on welfare — to work.
“But then it’s not proper to give them an extra payment in addition,” she said. “This really gives a completely wrong signal.”
The men who participate are a lively bunch. Many are obviously buzzed at midday, and perhaps not highly effective at picking up trash, but jovial. Some say they aren’t alcoholics, just heavy drinkers.
The foreman of one group, Fred Schiphorst, takes his job seriously. He wears a suit and tie under his reflective vest, which he says gives him a feeling of dignity. He says he is treated with more respect in the neighborhood. But he admits his off-the-job drinking is still up and down.
One introspective program participant is Karel Slinger, 50. He says frankly that his life hasn’t been transformed by the program. His alcoholism is not under control. But he says on the whole, things have changed for the better.
“Yes, of course in the park it is nice weather and you just drink a lot of beer,” he said of his old life. “Now you come here and you are occupied and you have something to do. I can’t just sit still. I want something to do.”