Amsterdam street drinkers paid in beer to collect litter

Free beer is the order of the day at the Rainbow Group in Amsterdam, but you have to clear the streets of rubbish to qualify.

Around 20 street-drinkers have joined the project. They start at 09.00, have regular breaks for beer, cigarettes and a hot lunch – all provided free of charge – and finish up by 15.00.

Project co-ordinator Janet van de Noord said: “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.”

The Rainbow Group, a charity that is part-funded by the Dutch government, is reluctant to say how many of the 6,000 cans of beer in stock are paid for by the government in case it generates bad publicity that might affect funding.

But Ms van de Noord argues it is a cost-effective way to tackle the impact of street-drinking. “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.”

Since the street-cleaning programme started 12 months ago, local police have received fewer reports of stabbings and muggings in the park and local residents say they are happy with the government supporting this approach. Instead of being ostracised by society, the street-drinkers’ needs appear to have been incorporated into the Dutch healthcare system.

At the Jellinek Centre, one of Amsterdam’s drug treatment services, Floor van Bakkum 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 the scheme is targeting street-drinkers, and would be inappropriate for alcoholics who still live at home and have a job.

The founders of the project approach the issue 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, one of the service users.

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.”