Amsterdam alcoholics paid in beer – solving 'my' problem, but not 'the' problem


The idea would most likely not be tolerated in the UK, but the ever liberal Dutch are always open to a pragmatic, if unconventional, social policy. A group of twenty alcoholics, who had previously been causing a menace to Amsterdam's Oosterpark, have now been hired to clean up the streets. The daily salary consists of 8 euros (£10), half a pound of rolling tobacco and five beer cans. Two of these they can drink before 9am, with optional coffee, then they are given two more at lunch (a full hot meal) before receiving their final one at 3.30pm when work is over.

This all might sound bizarre, but the people who set this up have form for thinking along unexpected lines. The group behind this are the Rainbow Foundation, a 35-year-old charity that operates three 'drug rooms' where addicts can indulge their habit safely, as well as so called 'underground tours' where former drug abusers show tourists around parts of the city linked with their past addictions.

Gerrie Holterman, this latest project's organiser, has said: "This group of chronic alcoholics was causing a nuisance… fights, noise, disagreeable comments to women… The aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park."

Once you look past what has to be an exceptionally bizarre looking headline, it is tough to argue with results. The group no longer bother Oosterpark's patrons, and they are making what they feel is a positive contribution to society at large. "We… feel satisfied, a job well done, contributing to society despite the fact that we drink," said Vincent, one of the alcoholics helped by this scheme and a former baker.

But whether or not this helps their alcoholism is another matter. While Vincent says, "When I get home, I've already had a busy day and I don't necessarily want to drink… the beer they give us is light, 5 percent, not 11 percent or 12 percent like I used to drink…"

Others tell a different story. One man, who had a conviction for a violent offence, and was only named as Frank, said, "Of course we drink in a more structured way, but I don't think that we drink less. When we leave here, we go to the supermarket and transform the 10 euros we earned into beers. When the supermarket opens at 8:00 am, we're the first there so we can get some drinks."

It's difficult to know just how much these people are drinking, since although Ms Holterman does monitor their intake, according to Sowetan Live (a major South African news source) she frequently leaves the alcoholics to fill in their intake reports themselves.

This is a social policy that is symptomatic of a broader trend in dealing with these issues. Or rather, not dealing with them. Ms Holterman is surely under no illusion that giving addicts more of what they're addicted to isn't going to solve their underlying issue. What it will do, and what it is doing for these addicts, is solving a problematic external symptom of that issue. They're no longer causing trouble in the park.

While in this case, it's pretty clear how this is a superficial solution to a much deeper underlying problem, this is something we're seeing in many other areas. Take ASBOs for instance. Prohibiting troublemakers from visiting certain parts of town, and monitoring them with electronic tags to make sure they stay where they're supposed to, does little to nothing to deal with the underlying concern of why they are causing trouble in the first place. While they don't go as far as this Dutch plan does in actually attempting to harness the vice, so it doesn't get in the way of everyone else's day, it's clear to see how this is a policy which only works to solve one set of people's problems. We have lots of policies that solve "my" problem from a "me" perspective, while not solving the actual problem, and certainly not in a way that has the positive transformation of the person or people causing it foremost in mind.

To take another example, look at police tactics for dealing with protesters in London under Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair. Protesters have many different problems, from climate change to austerity to perceived injustice in the courts. But one thing that unites them all is that they want to have their voice heard. Ian Blair however was unconcerned by this when he instituted the practice of "Ketteling" for dealing with larger demonstrations. This involved sealing large groups of protesters into confined areas, often supplying them no exit (this has proven controversial, as bystanders are also often caught up in this). Here we see another example of solving "my" problem, but not "the" problem. You might solve "your" problem of avoiding the protesters from substantially disrupting the city, but you have not solved "the" problem. The problem being that protesters are looking to make their views heard. Attempting to shut them off and put them in a corner is denying them this ability. Not surprisingly then, this makes them angry and can result in rioting.

Or to take a different example, the 24 hour alcohol licencing laws. These were intended to solve "my" problem, the issue of huge numbers of clubbers and pub goers all exiting their respective haunts at a specific hour, thus causing widespread disturbance to the streets and neighbourhoods nearby. But this doesn't solve "the" problem of the fact that we have all these people who feel it necessary to drink to excess as a kind of social activity in the first place.

These issues aren't the most important or the most damaging examples of this kind of thinking, but they are some of the clearest to see. The concerning thing about this trend is the desire not to actually confront the things we don't like, but merely to push them to one side so they don't disturb us. As long as the alcoholics don't disturb the dog walkers, as long as the ruffians can't enter my neighbourhood, as long as the protesters can't disrupt the city, and as long as I don't have to hear the noise of the revellers, we very often don't care. We just want to be removed from the consequences of others actions. We're not interested in confronting the issues they face.

As Christians though, we should eschew such self-centeredness. Yes, we might have a right to oppose and indeed punish the behaviours of these types of people, but we shouldn't support a policy that merely pushes things under the rug. These issues shouldn't only matter to us if they disrupt our lives, and we should be willing to help the issues that are "the" problem, not just "our" problems. It might take longer, and our problems might have to take a back burner, but in the end it leads us down a path truer to what Jesus called us to. Solve "the" problem, don't just deal with it in so far as it inconveniences me.

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