Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Instead of arresting public drunks, Amsterdam has tasked them with cleaning up a local park. Payment: €10, some rolling tobacco and 5 cans of beer.
You may have heard that Amsterdam is trying out a new way to deal with problem public drunks. Instead of arresting them, the city is setting them to work—and paying them in beer.
For just over a year, Amsterdam NGO Regenboog Groep (Rainbow Group) has been running the work scheme for formerly rowdy public drinkers in Amsterdam's Oosterpark. Working in two teams of 10, the participants spend six and a half hours a day, three days a week, sweeping and tidying up in the park. For this, they get €10, some rolling tobacco and five cans of beer. Rather than coming in one chunk, the beer allowance is doled out gradually as a way of encouraging attendance. Participants get two beers in the morning, two during a break and one when work ends, along with a hot meal.
Some might see a program that rewards alcoholics with alcohol as a way of enabling bad behavior, but Regenboog spokesperson Jasprin Schupp says the concept is aimed at people who have already tried and failed with just about every form of help out there.
"We’re working with severe alcoholics who have been in the park for many years. They’ve all been drinking for over a decade, they’ve tried rehab, doctors, they’ve looked everywhere without success," he says. "Now they’re coming every day to the park, their health is improving and they are putting on weight."
While the daily payments do cost the city something, it's arguably far cheaper than leaving the street drinkers alone to waste police time or get sicker and require treatment. The rewards the scheme offers—modest in a country with a minimum wage of €341 a week—are only part of the scheme's success, not least because most participants are already receiving welfare benefits. The work gives the addicts some structure to their lives and a chance to socialize. It can also give them a sense of achievement they’ve often been lacking for years.
"One man in the program told me that he’d been cursed at by the locals for years, and often for good reason," says Schupp. "Recently a neighbor who he had had particular problems with approached him and said how happy he was that he was cleaning the park. Just hearing that sort of comment after years of being on the wrong side can have a huge positive effect on people."
Could this sort of scheme work internationally? There are potential problems. It may be great to see addicts performing socially useful tasks, but there's already a group of people out there performing similar services and supporting themselves and families with it—street cleaners.
In Amsterdam’s case, there hasn't as yet been a labor conflict. City cleaning staff who are responsible for the park cover a far wider area than the park alone, and have seen their workload lightened slightly rather than taken over. Should schemes like this become far more common, however, there might be justified resentment from people who see their livelihoods taken over as a social reform exercise. Still, early results from the initial pilot seem to prove that if you treat marginalized, difficult people like decent human beings, pretty quickly they'll start acting that way.