Amsterdam lures alcoholics to work with beer

 

© 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.

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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.

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“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.”

To shield the government from criticism that it is subsidizing drinking, the Rainbow Foundation insists that it pays for the beer given to Schiphorst and his fellow alcoholics out of its own funds. “For the government, it is hard to say, ‘We buy beer for a particular group of people,' because other people will say, ‘I would like some beer, too,'” Wijnands said.

“It would be beautiful if they all stopped drinking, but that is not our main goal,” he added. “You have to give people an alternative, to show them a path other than just sitting in the park and drinking themselves to death.”

The cleaning teams are forbidden from drinking while out on the street, but Schiphorst and his work mates say they get enough beer before they set out in the morning and during their lunch break to keep them going. “This is my medicine; I need it to survive,” said Schiphorst, his hands shaking as he gulped his first beer of the day at a morning meeting with Rainbow Foundation supervisors.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Ramon Smits, a member of Schiphorst’s team, said he used to knock back a bottle and more of whiskey or rum each day but now sticks to beer, consuming five cans a day at work and then another five or so in his free time. An immigrant from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, Smits said the project had not only helped him cut down his daily alcohol intake but also raised his self-esteem. “It keeps me away from trouble, and I’m doing something useful,” he said. “I help myself, and I help my community.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Locals in the heavily immigrant eastern district who used to curse alcoholics for turning the area’s main park, Oosterpark, into an unruly outdoor bar now greet them with smiles as they do their cleaning rounds, dressed in orange jackets and carrying bright yellow garbage bags.

“This is not a beer project - it is a cleaning project,” said the district mayor, Elatik, adding that it had proved far more successful in keeping drunks out of Oosterpark than previous government initiatives. On a recent afternoon, there were just three people drinking in the park, instead of the dozens who used to gather there, she said.

Until the beer-for-work program started, the authorities had tried to purge the park of drunks by banning alcohol there and stepping up patrols by security guards. But this only forced alcoholics to move to other parks in the area and led to fights with the guards. Schiphorst was detained after one such brawl.

“It is easy to say, ‘Get rid of them and punish them,'” Elatik said. “But that does not solve the problem.

“Maybe I’m a softy, but I am happy to be soft if it helps people. They are human beings with problems, not just a problem to be swept away.”

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Schiphorst said he started drinking heavily in the 1970s after he found his wife, who was pregnant with twins, dead in their home from a drug overdose. He has since spent time in a clinic and tried other ways to quit but has never managed to entirely break his addiction.

“Every day is a struggle,” he said during a lunch break with his work mates. “You may see these guys hanging around here, chatting, making jokes. But I can assure you, every man you see here carries a little backpack with their own misery in it.”

AP-WF-12-05-13 0514GMT

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