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Ramon Mohamed Halim Smits, left, and Fred Schiphorst pause for a beer and cigarettes in their clubhouse in east Amsterdam.

Dutch pay alcoholics in beer

Neighbors glad park cleaner, ruffians fewer

Associated Press photos
Three alcoholics set out on their daily route to collect litter in east Amsterdam. In a pilot project, alcoholics work for beer.

– 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, then do an afternoon shift before closing out with their last beer. Sometimes there’s a bonus beer.

Total daily pay package: $25, in a mix of beer, tobacco, a meal and 10 euros in 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. Elatik says the city was spending $1.3 million a year on various prevention, treatment and policing programs to deal with the problem, and nobody was satisfied.

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 Group Foundation, the small nonprofit running the operation, still hopes 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,” leader Gerrie Holterman said. “This is a start to go toward other projects and maybe another kind of job.”

She conceded there has been only one person who has moved from the program to regular life.

Numerous other 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.

Karel Slinger, 50, one of the participants, 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.”