Alcoholics work for beer in Amsterdam program

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 16, 2014 at 2:35 pm •  Published: January 16, 2014
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AMSTERDAM (AP) — 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.

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