Share story


After more than a decade out of work because of a back injury and chronic alcoholism, Fred Schiphorst 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.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“I’m not proud of being an alcoholic, but I am proud to have a job again,” said Schiphorst, the 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 Muslim who wears a headscarf, Elatik personally disapproves of alcohol but says she believes alcoholics “cannot be just ostracized” and told to shape up. It is better, she said, to give them something to do and to 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 made the city a mecca for marijuana users and spawned Europe’s best-known red-light district.

Hans Wijnands, director of the Rainbow Foundation, dismissed such complaints as political grandstanding 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.

The idea of providing alcoholics with beer in return for work, Wijnands 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 has three districts running beer-for-work street-cleaning programs, and a fourth discussing whether to follow suit. Other Dutch cities are studying the idea.

“This is my medicine”

The 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.

“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 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 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 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.

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, 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.”

During a recent lunch break, meanwhile, Schiphorst said: “Every day is a struggle. 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.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.