Amsterdam has a novel new way of dealing with panhandling: paying homeless alcoholics with beer. The objective is harm reduction and serving the public good.
Compensating alcoholics with beer may sound counterintuitive, but Amsterdam believes that it may help people get back on track. The New York Times’s Andrew Higgins published an article yesterday detailing the program and chronicling the life of one of its participants. Drinkers are “paid” to pick up trash within the city.
The Times quoted district mayor Fatima Elatik, saying, “It is better to give them something to do and restrict their drinking to a limited amount of beer with no hard alcohol.” Elatik also suggested that ostracizing alcoholics does little to clean them up.
That said, it’s important to note that not all panhandlers are substance abusers. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has estimated that 38% of homeless people have alcohol dependency while 26% abused other drugs.
“It would be beautiful if they all stopped drinking, but that is not our main goal. You have to give people an alternative, to show them a path other than just sitting in the park and drinking themselves to death,” Hans Wijnands, director of the Rainbow Foundation, told The Times. The foundation serves the city’s homeless population.
Public comments for the Times article were intriguing and thoughtful. One poster praised Amsterdam for breaking from “small-minded moralism,” another asked whether there was an obvious path from “beer to no beer,” and others suggested that allowing homeless alcoholics to “live like humans” ended a public nuisance.
A similar approach has been taken in Canada. University of Victoria researchers have advocated giving free beer over the market providing inexpensive hard alcohol products or having addicts resort to consuming harmful alternatives like mouthwash.
(image credit: Jeremy King, Flickr )