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    Dec 06, 2013

    Amsterdam alcoholics work for beer


    AFTER more than a decade out of work because of a back injury and chronic alcoholism, Fred Schiphorst finally landed a job last year and is determined to keep it.

    He gets up at 5.30am, walks his dog and then puts on a red tie, ready to clean litter from the streets of eastern Amsterdam.

    "You have to look sharp," said Mr Schiphorst, 60, a former construction worker.

    His workday begins unfailingly at 9am - with two cans of beer, a down payment on a salary paid mostly in alcohol. He gets two more cans at lunch and then another can or, if all goes smoothly, two to round off a productive day.

    "I'm not proud of being an alcoholic, but I am proud to have a job again," said Mr Schiphorst, the grateful beneficiary of an unusual government-funded programme to lure alcoholics off the streets by paying them in beer to pick up trash.

    In addition to beer - the brand varies, depending on which brewery offers the best price - each member of the cleaning team gets half a packet of rolling tobacco, free lunch and 10 euros (S$17) a day.

    The programme, started last year by the Rainbow Foundation, a private but mostly government-funded organisation that helps the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics get back on their feet, is so popular that there is a long waiting list of chronic alcoholics eager to join the beer-fuelled cleaning teams.

    One of the project's most enthusiastic supporters is Ms Fatima Elatik, district mayor of eastern Amsterdam.

    As a practising Muslim who wears a headscarf, Ms Elatik personally disapproves of alcohol but says she believes that alcoholics "cannot be just ostracised" and told to shape up. It is better, she said, to give them something to do and restrict their drinking to a limited amount of beer, with no hard alcohol.

    Conservative members of the Amsterdam City Council have derided what they call the "beer project" as a waste of government money and a misguided extension of a culture of tolerance that has already made the city a destination for marijuana users and spawned Europe's best-known red-light district.

    Mr Hans Wijnands, the director of the Rainbow Foundation, dismissed such complaints as political grandstanding at a time when, even in the Netherlands, "it is becoming more fashionable to support repressive measures".

    "If you just say, 'Stop drinking and we will help you,' it doesn't work," said Mr Wijnands. "But if you say, 'I will give you work for a few cans of beer during the day,' they like it."

    The cleaning teams are forbidden from drinking while out on the street, but Mr Schiphorst and his workmates say they get enough beer before they set out in the morning and during their lunch break to keep them going.

    "This is my medicine; I need it to survive," said Mr Schiphorst, his hands shaking as he gulped his first beer of the day at a morning meeting with Rainbow Foundation supervisors.