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Alcoholics are being paid in beer to clean the streets of Amsterdam as part of a project partly funded by the Dutch government – the organisers think other countries should abandon “old-fashioned political correctness” and adopt the same approach.
Rene scours the streets, grasping at discarded wrappers.
His movements are fuelled by a tangible pride. It is an unfamiliar emotion for a man whose alcohol addiction has cost him so much.
“I have four children and three ex-wives, but alcohol has finished everything. I don’t see them, they don’t know where I am, or if I am alive. Now I have only him. He is there for 30 years, when times are good and bad, he is always there,” he says, referring to his habit.
His affectionate gaze travels downwards. It rests on an aluminium can.
Chronic alcoholics have congregated inside a communal space, commandeered by the Rainbow Group. It is a private but primarily government-funded company, which helps those struggling to cope due to homelessness, drug abuse or alcoholism.
A gas heater emanates warmth; someone hums along to the theme tune from Armageddon.
Rene, 52, has just cracked open his third can of the day. It has just gone 11:30 in the morning.
The distinctive aroma of stamppot, a traditional Dutch vegetable stew, wafts through from the kitchen.
The air is hazy with smoke and camaraderie; another pop anthem fills the room with nostalgia.
“They like to cook and you see qualities they didn’t even know they had,” says Janet van de Noord, who runs the Rainbow Group’s litter project.
“It’s quite difficult to get these people off the alcohol completely. We have tried everything else. Now this is the only thing that works. We might not make them better, but we are giving them a better quality of life and it’s better for the neighbourhood, they’re giving something back to society.”
Inside an oversized garden shed, decorated with Ajax football paraphernalia, about 6,000 cans of beer are stacked in crates.
The Rainbow Group is reluctant to say exactly how much the Dutch government pays towards the free beer, cautious of generating any negative publicity that might jeopardise their funding.
But Ms van de Noord argues it is a cost-effective way to tackle the impact of alcoholism. “If people are being arrested, it also costs society a lot of money. So this can only be a good thing. I don’t see why other countries wouldn’t want to do it.”
When I asked other Dutch people about the project they all spoke in favour of it.
Ten minutes’ walk from the now litter-free streets lies Amsterdam’s Oosterpark.
Fountains propel shimmering bursts of water; leaves create an autumnal collage on the path.
This slice of Dutch life is interrupted by a man staggering towards us. “Mooooi!” (“beautiful”) he says, greeting us with a sleazy smile. But he quickly makes it clear that he and his friends do not wish to be interviewed.
He is one of the remaining alcoholics who have not been persuaded to abandon their park benches.
Since the street-cleaning programme started 12 months ago, local police have received fewer reports of stabbings and muggings in the park. And all of the residents we spoke to said they were happy with the government supporting this unconventional approach.
Instead of being ostracised by society, the alcoholics’ needs appear to have been incorporated into the Dutch healthcare system.
The Rainbow Group is optimistic their success so far will attract more funding and help them to reach the unreachable. Other cities in the Netherlands are now considering introducing similar schemes.
Floor van Bakkum of Amsterdam’s Jellinek anti-addiction clinic says the project is a good way to deal with “a very problematic group – it’s kind of harm reduction”. She likened it to giving carefully monitored methadone or heroin doses to chronic heroin addicts.
“It might help them to do something else with their life. You always have to monitor such a project, so it shouldn’t attract new alcoholics – it’s not an open invitation to drink in Oosterpark.” She said such a scheme would be inappropriate for alcoholics who still live at home and have a job.
Back on litter duty, Rene tells me about his past life – expensive cars, extensive travel and some details best not shared. But, he insists, he is happier now, with nothing.
He detects our incredulity: “You don’t believe me? Trust me, if I could have my life again I would give it all up for this.
“I know he will never expect anything from me or let me down. Now I am free,” he says, referring to the drink habit.
Some might wonder, how free can an addict be?
But the founders of this project treat this addiction as an “unchangeable reality” and tackle it using the only device that is guaranteed to connect with the patients.
“I come for the beer. If there was no beer then why would I come?” says Rene.
Regardless of their motivations, Rene and his friends are making a positive difference in a community where they were once despised.
“It’s true,” Rene concedes, acknowledging the irony. “They used to treat us like garbage – and now we are picking up their garbage, we are not the garbage anymore.”