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
In a pilot project that has drawn attention in the Netherlands and around
the world, the city has teamed up with a charity organisation 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
Participants are given beer in exchange for light work collecting litter,
eating a decent meal, and sticking to their schedule.
Read: Can beer be healthy?
A sense of perspective
"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
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,
in a mix of beer, tobacco, a meal, and ten Euros cash.
Read: Beer belly blues
Noise, litter and harassment
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
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 programmes to deal with the problem, and nobody was satisfied.
Alcoholism a problem
Meanwhile, the small nonprofit Rainbow Group Foundation and its predecessors
had been experimenting with ways to get help for alcoholics and drug addicts in
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 are cause as little as possible disturbance to the environment they are living in," she said. "I think
it is good that they are doing this."
Read: Alcoholism – the facts
Amsterdam's pragmatic solutions
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.
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