A hard core of vagrants had become a headache for Amsterdam social workers. Nothing could move them, and each day they caused more pollution and noisy abuses of passers-by. Enter the Rainbow Group with a harm-reduction approach that puts the homeless to work as street cleaners and rewards them with 10 euros, five cans of beer and some tobacco per session.
Spokeswoman Jasperine Schupp explained.
Metro: How well are they doing?
Schupp: It's not like a scientific study but we can see severe alcoholics gain weight and they are drinking less. Police and neighbours had tried everything – rehab, activities – and nothing worked. Now they are not hanging in a group screaming at people, and we can see they take pride in their job of cleaning the area. The change has empowered them to make the best of themselves and they come every day on time, sober, and behaving more socially.
Is the local community supportive or suspicious?
We do encounter suspicion, not because they are working, but because we give them beer. But this is part of harm reduction – we accept they drink but guide them to drink less and in a way is less damaging to society. The police are supportive and people in the area are happy.
What is the recruitment process?
It’s a low threshold. If you are in a park making noise we will approach you. People say yes because they want to be busy, as well as the reward. Looking through the backgrounds of these people, nothing else has worked.
Could the scheme be expanded?
I hope so. In the Netherlands we have had harm reduction for years but it's complicated because politicians and policymakers are scared to be involved. From a pragmatic point of view it’s a cheap idea and I hope politicians can treat it sensibly.