The imaginative approach to the problem of anti-social behavior demonstrates typical Dutch pragmatism which could be found shocking in other countries, but not here. At nine o’clock in the morning in a garden shed behind a house in Amsterdam, a handful of alcoholics are getting ready to clean the surrounding streets, beer and cigarette in hand.
For a day’s worth of work, the men receive 10 euros (which is close to around $13), a half-packet of rolling tobacco and, most importantly, five cans of beer: two to start the day, two at lunch and one for after work. “This group of chronic alcoholics used to cause a nuisance in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark with by starting fights, making too much noise, and overall disagreeable comments to women,” said Geoffry Holterman, who heads the De Regenboog Foundation project, financed by the Dutch state and through donations.
“The purpose and aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park…” The alcoholics are split into two groups of around 10 people, with each group working three days a week.
This imaginative approach to the problem of anti-social behavior demonstrates typical Dutch pragmatism which could be found shocking in other countries, but not here.
Their day begins at around 9:00 am, at which the workers begin by drinking two beers and some coffee, if they wish, before heading out to clean the streets. Sitting at a large table, Geoffry carefully notes each person’s beer consumption, but with an atmosphere of trust: if he gets called away for something important, the alcoholics themselves record how much they have drunk.
“I think I can speak for the group and say that if they didn’t give us beers then we wouldn’t come,” said Jerry, wearing a fluorescent street cleaner’s bib and carrying a bin bag and litter-grabber. “We need alcohol to function, that’s the disadvantage of chronic alcoholism,” said the 45-year-old, somewhat fatalistically.
Frank says he has been jailed for violence and has never worked for anyone before beginning the program. For lunch, the team returns to the shed where they get two beers and a warm meal, before heading off again for the afternoon shift.
“You have to see things like this where everyone benefits,” said Ashley “They’re no longer in the park, they drink less, they eat better and they have something to keep them busy during the day… Heroin addicts can go to shooting galleries, so why shouldn’t we also give people beer?” she said.
Project participants also say they are happy to be there, all taking part voluntarily. “It gives our lives some structure,” said one alcoholic who asked not to be named. “Lots of us haven’t had any structure in our lives for years, we just don’t know what it is, and so this is good for us,” said another.
People living in the neighborhood also seem happy, greeting the cleaners as they work. “They’re doing something useful instead of hanging out in the park,” said a woman stood on her doorstep, declining to give her name.
Opinions however differ about how much the work affects the group’s drinking habits. “When I get home, I’ve already had a busy day and I don’t necessarily want to drink,” said Vincent, 48, a former baker. “We also feel satisfied, a job well done, contributing to society despite the fact that we drink,” he said. “What’s also good is that the beer they give us is light, 5 percent, not 11 percent or 12 percent like I used to drink,” he said.