Brooms for Beer: City Enlists Alcoholic Street Cleaners

PHOTO: Two pints of beerGetty Images
Two pints of beer sit on a wooden barrel in a London pub.

Amsterdam has begun employing alcoholics to clean the city's streets, paying them in cash, tobacco and beer. City authorities say it's solving the problems related to public drunkenness. Critics question whether the program unethically enables addiction.

The idea came about some time ago in a somewhat messy way in Amsterdam's Oosterpark. The green space near the city center, with its duck pond and expansive lawns, was a pleasant retreat for families. If not for the drinking, that is. "There were complaints from residents for years," says Caspar Itz, spokesman for the Oost district government. A group of as many as 40 alcoholics were making the park unsafe, he says, with fist fights, public urination and plenty of shouting.

City authorities tried everything to fix the problem, Itz says, including fines and an absolute ban on alcohol in the park. It was all in vain, until someone came up with the street cleaning project.

It's the brand of social work that could only happen in Amsterdam, one of Europe's most liberal big cities, where relaxed pragmatism dominates drug policy and the occasional waft of cannabis smoke blows across nearly every street corner.

The deal works as follows: Alcoholics are provided with a broom to go about keeping the streets and parks clean. In return they receive €10 ($13.50) per day, as well as a half a pack of rolling tobacco and up to five cans of beer -- two in the morning, two in the afternoon and one more after they finish the day's work.

'We Need Alcohol to Function'

The project was developed with addiction experts about a year ago, Itz says, and it has been a resounding success. "These people get something to do, a structured daily routine," he says. "And they're gone from the park." Nineteen alcoholics are currently participating in the project, he says, hastily adding that the free beer is not meant as payment for their work, but rather as part of a medical treatment.

"It works like giving heroin to addicts," he says. "An addiction expert is always there and controls how much each individual is getting." Even the five cans of beer per day amount to less than what the alcoholics would be drinking if left to their own devices, he adds, which is one of the reasons why they don't just give out money. "We wouldn't have any control. With us, there's a fridge, and the fridge has a lock. And we decide when that lock is opened."

The project was the subject of a recent report by the news agency AFP, which said the atmosphere of mutual trust means if the supervisor is away, the alcoholics themselves write down how much they've had to drink.

"I think I can speak for the group and say that if they didn't give us beers then we wouldn't come," 45-year-old participant Frank told the agency. "We need alcohol to function, that's the disadvantage of chronic alcoholism."

German Experts Skeptical

The workday begins at 9 a.m. in a tool shed that functions as the project headquarters. Each person gets a coffee, a cigarette and two cans of Grolsch, a Dutch domestic brew. Then they don their neon orange safety vests, grab a garbage bag and litter picker and hit the streets of Amsterdam.

"Our intent is not to replace the regular employees of our city cleaning service," says Itz. "The main goal is to give them a task and to keep them out of the park." The project is financed by the city's social fund. "But it's really cheap in comparison to the repressive methods we applied before," he adds -- €19 per person, per day. Other cities in the Netherlands have expressed an interest in replicating the program, which is already being expanded into the Amsterdam neighborhoods of West and Noord, among others. "Parks or train stations with drinkers who cause problems are everywhere," Itz says.

German experts respond to the project with more reservation. "It certainly makes sense to give alcoholics a task, and thus a fixed daily structure," says Christa Merfert-Diete, spokeswoman for the German Central Office for Questions of Addiction. "But we don't see why you should give out tobacco and alcohol along with money." Alcoholics can buy beer in supermarkets anyway, she said, and there's no reason to give it away for free.

Itz says there's been discussion in the Netherlands, too, about whether it's ethical to provide beer to alcoholics. But he says people in his city have learned something in the fight against addiction: "Only when you first analyze how you can influence addiction are you able to help the addicts, and in turn also solve the problems of the residents."

As to the question of whether the alcoholics will end up drinking less, participant Frank is skeptical. When he and his coworkers are done for the day, they just go to the grocery store to buy more beer. "Of course we drink in a more structured way," he says, "but I don't think that we drink less."