c.2013 New York Times News Service
AMSTERDAM — After more than a decade out of work because of a back injury and chronic alcoholism, Fred Schiphorst finally landed a job last year and is determined to keep it. He gets up at 5:30 a.m., walks his dog and then puts on a red tie, ready to clean litter from the streets of eastern Amsterdam.
“You have to look sharp,” said Schiphorst, 60, a former construction worker.
His workday begins unfailingly at 9 a.m. — with two cans of beer, a down payment on a salary paid mostly in alcohol. He gets two more cans at lunch and then another can or, if all goes smoothly, two to round off a productive day.
“I’m not proud of being an alcoholic, but I am proud to have a job again,” said Schiphorst, the grateful beneficiary of an unusual government-funded program to lure alcoholics off the streets by paying them in beer to pick up trash.
In addition to beer — the brand varies depending on which brewery offers the best price — each member of the cleaning team gets half a packet of rolling tobacco, free lunch and 10 euros a day, or about $13.55.
The program, started last year by the Rainbow Foundation, a private but mostly government-funded organization that helps the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics get back on their feet, is so popular that there is a long waiting list of chronic alcoholics eager to join the beer-fueled cleaning teams.
One of the project’s most enthusiastic supporters is Fatima Elatik, district mayor of eastern Amsterdam. As a practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf, Elatik personally disapproves of alcohol but says she believes that alcoholics “cannot be just ostracized” and told to shape up. It is better, she said, to give them something to do and restrict their drinking to a limited amount of beer with no hard alcohol.
Conservative members of the Amsterdam City Council have derided what they call the “beer project” as a waste of government money and a misguided extension of a culture of tolerance that has already made the city a mecca for marijuana users and spawned Europe’s best-known red-light district.
Hans Wijnands, the director of the Rainbow Foundation, dismissed such complaints as political grandstanding at a time when, even in the Netherlands, “it is becoming more fashionable to support repressive measures.” Alarmed by what it said was a rise in crime caused by liberal drug laws, the Dutch government announced a plan in 2010 to bar foreigners from buying cannabis in so-called coffee shops, which sell marijuana and hashish legally. Amsterdam’s mayor ordered city police to ignore the ban, which was supposed to go into effect nationwide this year.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
The idea of providing alcoholics with beer in return for work, he said, was first tried in Canada. It took off in the Netherlands in part because the country has traditionally shunned “zero tolerance” in response to addiction. Amsterdam now has three districts running beer-for-work street cleaning programs, and a fourth discussing whether to follow suit. Other Dutch cities are looking into the idea, too.
The basic idea is to extend to alcoholics an approach first developed to help heroin addicts, who have for years been provided with free methadone, a less dangerous substitute, in a controlled environment that provides access to health workers and counselors.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
“If you just say, ‘Stop drinking and we will help you,’ it doesn’t work,” said Wijnands, whose foundation gets 80 percent of its financing from the state and runs four drug consumption rooms with free needles for hardened addicts. “But if you say, ‘I will give you work for a few cans of beer during the day,’ they like it.”