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A German City Is Paying Its Alcoholics in Beer to Clean the Streets

On October 1, the German city of Essen will launch a program that incentivizes the homeless, addicts, and alcoholics with beer and cigarettes in exchange for their aid in cleaning the city square.

by Hilary Pollack
Sep 30 2014, 10:19pm

Many first-world cities with large homeless populations have initiatives and programs in place to help needy addicts beat meth, heroin, alcohol, or whatever their drug of choice happens to be. But next month, social workers in the western German city of Essen will be taking a markedly different approach.

On October 1, Addict Support Essen will launch a program that incentivizes the homeless, addicts, and alcoholics with beer and cigarettes in exchange for their aid in cleaning the city square, Willy-Brandt-Platz, which has become a hub of drunks, garbage, and public urination. The project, titled "Pick Up," is overseen by social workers, and, according to its organizers, is meant to serve as a means for addicts to reintegrate into society by adhering to a regular schedule—something resembling a "job," even if its pay is mostly in consumables rather than cash. (Participants receive €1.25 per hour in addition to three bottles of hooch and a warm meal for each shift, plus cigarettes for smokers.) In response to concerns about using booze and smokes as figurative carrots, social services department official Peter Renzel shrugged off objections to the plan with the observation "Good bait catches mice." Many worry that the program is a nihilistic means of handling banal civic tasks through the exploitation of the already socially and literally bankrupt, and opponents of the plan balk at the idea of using beer purchased with taxpayers' dollars.

And maybe, technically, that's all true. But there is evidence that those in the program would benefit from the structure that it provides—even if it just keeps them away from harder drugs and alcohol for a significant chunk of the day.

Pick Up was modeled after a similar program in Amsterdam that currently has about 30 participants. (Amsterdam program coordinator Conrad Kockert starts cleaning with the group at 9 am, but allows the addicts to drink two beers before their shift, and up to seven total over the course of the day.) Organizers of Amsterdam's "Veegproject" saw breakthroughs with many participants, who were eventually able to reintegrate into the labor market and presumably find jobs that pay in actual currency instead of pocket change, beer, and soup. The program in Essen will start with teams of six and potentially grow depending on the success of the cleaning crew, which will sweep sidewalks and pick up trash on the streets of the city of just over half a million people over the span of four to six hours. A statement from the program describes it as "survival aid and harm reduction," explaining that "Addiction does not develop linearly, but cyclically." Although alcohol is being offered, the aim is that the "consumption frequency and quantity are reduced."

Though the program is being criticized as exploitative for some, it's intended solely for the most hopeless of cases; those who are essentially unemployable, heavily addicted even after stints in rehab, suffering from debilitating physical or mental health issues, and have reached a point where they've been through the system—sometimes including prison—but have not found a way to satisfactorily survive, let alone thrive, on the other side. The belief is that Pick Up will make life a little bit easier and more manageable for those who are struggling to integrate into society after years of wrestling with substance abuse and societal rejection. Plus, they'll be interacting closely with the social workers who could help them with other services, such as medical treatments and placement programs.

Maybe they crave an entire bottle of vodka, but are willing to settle for three beers, a hot shower, and some sausage for breakfast.