January 16

Alcoholics work for beer in Amsterdam program

Amsterdam has a history of pragmatic solutions to social problems — ideas that often seemed immoral at the time – and this is the latest example.

By Toby Sterling
The Associated Press

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Ramon Mohamed Halim Smits, participant in a pilot project for alcoholics, cleans a playground in Amsterdam's eastern part Wednesday. The city has teamed up with a charity organization in hopes of improving the neighborhood and possibly improving life for the alcoholics. Participants are given beer in exchange for a little work collecting litter, eating a decent meal, and sticking to their schedule.

The Associated Press

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Ramon Mohamed Halim Smits, left, and Fred Schiphorst, participants in the pilot project, pause for a beer and cigarettes in their clubhouse in Amsterdam’s eastern part Wednesday.

The Associated Press

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This time, 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 leader Gerrie Holterman said beer was the obvious choice, because it's easier to regulate consumption. Rainbow still harbors the ambition 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," Holterman said. "This is a start to go toward other projects and maybe another kind of job."

She conceded there has only been one individual so far who has moved from the program to regular life. Numerous 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.

Elatik, of the Labor party, said she couldn't quantify the cost of the current program — its budget comes partly from donations to Rainbow, partly from city funds — but it's definitely less than 100,000 euros ($130,000).

One critic of the project is politician Marianne Poot, of the rival conservative VVD party. In a position statement on her website, she praised the idea of forcing the men — who are on welfare — to work.

"But then it's not proper to give them an extra payment in addition," she said. "This really gives a completely wrong signal."

The men who participate are a lively bunch. Many are obviously buzzed at midday, and perhaps not highly effective at picking up trash, but jovial. Some say they aren't alcoholics, just heavy drinkers.

The foreman of one group, Fred Schiphorst, takes his job seriously. He wears a suit and tie under his reflective vest, which he says gives him a feeling of dignity. He says he is treated with more respect in the neighborhood. But he admits his off-the-job drinking is still up and down.

One introspective program participant is Karel Slinger, 50. He 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."

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Three alcoholics set out on their daily route to collect litter in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

The Associated Press


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