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Give chronic inebriates beer? Dutch idea may have real merit.

Craig Medred
Karluk Manor in Anchorage is now housing dozens of chronic inebriates. Tara Young photo

Leave it to the pragmatic Dutch to experiment with a new way to deal with chronic street inebriates, the people who comprise a small but visibly problematic segment of the homeless community, which inhabits every major Western city.

America's solution to this problem, like Alaska's solution, has been to throw these people in jail when they bother the good folks, as New York City has done. Or ask the responsible citizenry to turn a blind eye to their plight in the hope that if they are ignored they will go away, as some communities in Washington state have done. Or threaten with tickets those who ask for money on the street and the soft-hearted among us prone to slip them a dollar or two, as Anchorage has done.

Alaska's largest freedom-loving city announced in October yet another crackdown on panhandlers and their enablers. The Anchorage Police Department warned that anyone who gives or receives a handout in a roadway corridor without a permit could be fined.

Punishment is the knee-jerk American way to solve social problems. APD's latest proclamation on how it is dealing with problematic street people came just weeks before the New York Post whined that a drop in arrests of the homeless are putting that city on "an express train -- to the bad old days."

"The NYPD said panhandler/peddler arrests in the subway have increased over the past year, with 409 pinched so far in 2013 versus 395 in 2012. But those numbers pale in comparison to 2011, when it was reported that in a six-month span that year, a whopping 930 panhandlers and peddlers -- the two are not separated in the data -- were arrested," the newspaper reported in a story that suggested that subways were safer during the 2011 crackdown.

Throw the bums in jail! Jails are how we solve problems in this country. 

This might help explain why America, with only 5 percent of the world's population, is home to 25 percent of the global population behind bars.  

Even when the solution of throwing people in jail isn't working, as is now clearly the case with this country's failed "War on Drugs," the American solution is to keep throwing people in jail or at least keep charging them with crimes. The Dutch appear to be a lot more creative.

In Amsterdam, they have accepted an obvious reality -- some chronic inebriates are chronic inebriates because they want to be chronic inebriates. They like that state of being. They like the community of street drunks, strange as it might sound to some. And it is a community.

Face it: life is full of odd people making odd choices. We can try to change their choices, or we can accept them and deal with them. Lovers of the idea of a perfect world, Americans are prone to try, for lack of a better word, to "save" people from bad life choices. The Dutch are more willing to accept people for what they are and try to work with that.

In Amsterdam these days, "alcoholics are provided with a broom to go about keeping the streets and parks clean," reports Spiegel Online International. "In return they receive $13.50 per day, as well as a half a pack of rolling tobacco and up to five cans of beer -- two in the morning, two in the afternoon and one more after they finish the day's work.

"It's the brand of social work that could only happen in Amsterdam, one of Europe's most liberal big cities, where relaxed pragmatism dominates drug policy and the occasional waft of cannabis smoke blows across nearly every street corner," the German publication adds.

The dreaded L-word would seem to almost automatically sink this idea in Alaska, but just how liberal is it? Can anybody come up with a better way to solve the problem for $13.50, a six-pack of beer and some tobacco? What's the total cost there? Thirty dollars, maybe?

The average Anchorage policeman is paid more than that per hour to deal with panhandlers when he or she could be doing better things. If, of course, police deal with this problem with any greater force than a press release. If you look around Anchorage, there would seem to be more press-release posturing than actual boots-on-the-ground policing on this one. 

There are still a lot of panhandlers in this city. It is sometimes hard to make it into REI without being hit up by one. Maybe they figure a lot of the yuppies that shop there and are easy marks. Just because someone is a chronic inebriate doesn't mean they're stupid.

Whatever the case, Anchorage has a social problem that would appear to need a better solution than the ones tried so far, and the Dutch have come up with solution that appears dirt cheap. The big problem with their idea wouldn't seem to be so much that the program is liberal. Rather, it may violate our Puritanical norms.

In Amsterdam, the city fathers are rewarding people with money, beer and tobacco for what society at large thinks of as "bad behavior:" chronic drunkeness. We wouldn't want to reward people for bad behavior -- or at least obviously reward them -- would we? As Americans, we'd rather reward bad behavior quietly, under the table.

The federal Social Security Disability Insurance program doesn't, of course, consider chronic alcoholism a disability, but it has a long list of alcohol-related ailments that make alcoholics eligible for SSDI benefits. There are now almost 11 million people in this country -- or about one in every 30 Americans -- getting SSDI checks.

Given that number, there's little doubt that some chronic inebriates are in the group.

Forbes reported the program, which is more than $25 billion in the red, cost American taxpayers $128.9 billion in 2011, and no one is complaining. But, of course, few see SSDI as rewarding people for bad behavior even if in some cases that is exactly what it does.

A lot of health problems in this country, as everyone ought to know by now, are related to the lifestyle choices people make. Some people make bad lifestyle choices and end up unhealthy. The government has no Bad Choices Panel to look at these decisions and say, "Sorry Charlie. This is your fault, so we're not going to support you." 

Such a panel could arguably save taxpayers big bucks, but a government-run Bad Choices Panel might be even worse than a government-run Death Panel. We have an obligation to support the less fortunate among us, no matter how or why they got that way. All that separates us from the other animals is our sense of humanity. We don't abandon fellow humans to die or suffer needlessly.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't look outside the box for new, more cost-effective ways to help them and ourselves. The Dutch have gone way outside the box, and Caspar Itz, spokesman for the Oost district government, said it's working.

"These people get something to do, a structured daily routine," he told Spiegel, adding that the free beer is like medicine.

"It works like giving heroin to addicts," he said. "An addiction expert is always there and controls how much each individual is getting." 

Handing out beer, he added, gives the program more control than handing out money, which makes sense. If you give a drunk enough money to go buy a six-pack, he's probably going to wander off and do that instead of working a bit to earn the next beer he's promised. Getting people on a schedule of working between beer breaks has a certain Pavlovian sense to it.

"I think I can speak for the group and say that if they didn't give us beers then we wouldn't come," 45-year-old participant Frank told Speigel. "We need alcohol to function, that's the disadvantage of chronic alcoholism."

A sidewalk-shoveling crew?

Actually, that is only one of the many disadvantages of chronic alcoholism, but most of them are individual. The societal disadvantages, as the Dutch noted, are obvious: fist fights, public urination, plenty of shouting and the creation of the feeling among many people that the city's public places are not safe.

So the Dutch came up with a solution. Obviously, giving people brooms and beer in Anchorage in the winter would be pointless. There's not much to sweep up. But we could give them shovels and beer. 

This is a winter city. Winter cities often need the sidewalks shoveled. And when not shoveling the sidewalks, the city's chronic inebriates could use their shovels to scrape the voluminous quantities of road gravel off the shoulders of our highways and toss it back into the roadways where it would so some good, or they simply be tasked with picking up litter, of which this city has plenty.

Or we could just stick with our "Just Say No" program.

I've got to confess, it works for me. I don't have any problem telling panhandlers "I don't carry cash," then walking away. But I'm a hardass. There are better people among us. I know some of them. They feel compelled to do something when asked for help.

In many ways, these people are the best of Alaskans. And our response to the problem of chronic inebriates is to threaten to punish the best of Alaskans? As a society, this is our best solution? 

The Dutch might not have the perfect answer, either. But at least they're trying. 

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com