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In an ironic twist, alcoholics can now receive beer in exchange for work under a program funded by the Amsterdam government. These workers accept street cleaning jobs and are partially paid in beer. The brand of beer they receive is based on which brewery is offering the best price at the time. Not only do the workers receive beer; they are also given free lunch, a half packet of rolling tobacco and about $13.00 in pay each work day.
The force behind this program is the Rainbow Foundation. Although this is a private organization it is mostly funded by the government. The Rainbow Foundation focuses on helping drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless get back on their feet. Even though conservative politicians don’t support the idea, there is vast amount of chronic alcoholics on the waiting list eager to occupy these beer-fueled jobs.
Eastern Amsterdam’s district mayor, Fatima Elatik, is one of the program’s most enthusiastic supporters. She is a practicing Muslim and does not approve of alcohol, but feels it’s a great alternative to just telling alcoholics to get it together or ostracizing them. This project gives them something constructive to do and it limits their drinking to beer without the addition of heavy liquor.
The workers are not allowed to drink while actually performing their job duties as street cleaners. As opposed to sitting in the park, or wherever they reside, drinking themselves to death; the program provides structure to their disease.
A former construction worker, Fred Schiphorst, was out of work for over a decade because of chronic alcoholism coupled with a back injury. He finally landed a job with the program and says he is determined to keep it. He starts work with two cans of beer at 9 a.m.; he considers this a down payment on his daily wage. At lunch he is rewarded with two more cans and at least one more to end the work day. If all goes well on the job he is often given two can to top off a productive day.
Schiphorst says even though they don’t drink while working they receive enough beer before they begin work and another dose at lunch to keep them going. He said he needs beer to survive; it’s his medicine.
Schiphorst says although he’s not proud to be an alcoholic he is proud to be working again. He gets up in the morning and walks his dog; gets dressed in his red tie and heads to work to keep the streets of eastern Amsterdam clean.
Mr. Schiphorst is grateful to be a beneficiary of this ironic and unusual government funded program.
Amsterdam City Council’s conservative members say this so called “beer project” is a waste of government funds. They insist it is a misguided extension of a culture of tolerance that has already given them a bad rap.
The Rainbow Foundation’s director, Hans Wijnands, doesn’t pay those complaints any attention. He feels it’s just political grandstanding. In order to cover the government from the negative criticism surrounding the program, the Rainbow Foundation insists that the beer is paid for out of the organization’s own funds.
Wijnands said it would be wonderful is they all just stopped drinking but that not the main focus of the program. Their goal is to provide these alcoholics with an alternative to sitting around and drinking themselves into an early grave. He said simply telling them to stop drinking and saying we’ll help them does not work. If you tell them they can receive a few cans of beer in exchange for work; they love the idea.
The basic concept is to offer alcoholics the same approach that was first developed to help heroin addicts. These addicts have long been provided free methadone in a controlled environment; it’s a less dangerous substitute for the addict while providing access to counselors and health workers.
The Rainbow Foundation receives 80 percent of its funding from the state. In addition to the “Beer-for-Work” project, the organization also runs four drug consumption rooms for hardened addicts; each room has free needles.
Another proud recipient of the program, Ramon Smits, said he used to drink more than a bottle of rum or whiskey every day but since he’s joined the program he only consumes beer. Even though he drinks five cans at work and at least five more in his free time each day; the program has helped him reduce his daily alcohol intake.
Smits said the program raised his self-esteem drastically by allowing him to do something useful while keeping out of trouble. He strongly believes through this program he is helping his community as well has himself.
Mayor Elatik insists that this is not a beer project; it is a cleaning project. This program has been far more successful at keeping drunks out of the parks just hanging around and drinking than any of the previous government initiatives.
She says it’s easy for people to say get rid of them or punish them but that doesn’t solve the problem. Elatik affirms her belief that these are human beings with problems; problems that can’t just be swept under a rug.
Schiphorst said even though these guys laugh and joke with each other; you can be sure that each one of them carries a little backpack filled with their own misery. He says his alcohol issues started back in the 70s when he came home and found his wife, who was pregnant with twins, dead from an overdose of drugs.
He’s tried therapy and spent time in rehab but has been unsuccessful in entirely breaking his addiction. Schiphorst says every day is a struggle but he’s happy to be working again and at least managing his alcoholism much better.
In an unusual and ironic twist, alcoholics in Amsterdam can join a government funded program and receive beer in exchange for work. These workers keep the streets of eastern Amsterdam clean while being partially paid in beer.
By: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)