ESSEN — It's 10:30 a.m., and four men are meeting in the basement of No. 24, Hope Street in the German city of Essen. The street name is coincidentally symbolic. Washing machines are aligned against the wall, and work clothes are laid out in front of every locker. Behind the screen in the changing area Markus and Frank have a brief altercation about a pair of gloves before all the men proceed to the staff room.

It was just a minor argument, Mike says, because basically all the men get along. Mike, 39, used to work in construction, back when he lived an orderly life. Now he's "starting again from zero," he says. He doesn't have a fixed address and is temporarily sharing a room with another homeless person in the emergency shelter of an addiction facility.

"This project is my foothold," Mike says.

The initiative was started by Essen's help program for addicts, but it has since made headlines nationwide with the moniker "Cleaning for Beer." When this program, officially called the "Pick up," began in October, people had reservations about it. The basic idea, taken from an Amsterdam program, is to get addicts onto a daily schedule by having them clean up street litter. For this, they are paid a little over one euro per hour plus up to three bottles of beer.

The idea was criticized as being exploitive and contemptuous in its approach to people. Many thought wrongly that "Pick up" was somehow associated with the drinker's scene in Essen's inner city when in fact the trial program primarily targets severe drug addicts who may also use alcohol from time to time.

As testament to this, the 20 crates of beer that were bought for the program are still in the cellar, virtually untouched after more than two months. Only two bottles have been handed out. "That surprised even us," says Uwe Wawrzyniak, the social worker in charge of the yearlong trial program.

The beer bottles may be gathering dust, but it remains unclear whether the program would have found takers if there hadn't been this promise of an alcoholic reward. "We aren't dealing with normal employees but with people who are fighting addiction, may have a relapse and require a day's break," Wawrzyniak explains. "Something like this isn't possible under usual working conditions," she says, adding that "Pick up" is for those who haven't had success with other programs.

Not his first rodeo 

Mike, for example, has tried fighting his addiction countless times. But for the first time, his daily life now has a structure. "There's no more unnecessary drinking and stupid thinking anymore," he says. The discipline and new rhythm have helped keep his heroin habit in check. He only uses once a day now, he says. "And no shots or snorting. I smoke it. I'm down to less than half a tenth of a gram per day."

Mike wants to get clean so he can see his school-age son again. "I feel much fitter than I used to," he says as he enjoys a substantial breakfast of coffee, an egg, rolls, cheese, sausage, and the daily Vitamin B1 pill he's supposed to take. These are provided to participants to build up their metabolisms, Wawrzyniak explains. "Many of our clients don't eat right," she says. "Here they have breakfast together, and after their first shift they get a hot lunch."

Social worker Uwe Wawrzyniak — Photo: Francois Duchateau

All agree there's nothing more depressing than eating alone. For just one euro a day, the participants are provided both meals. Along with the optional addition of tobacco and up to three bottles of beer a day, the men earn an hourly pay of 1.25 euros for picking litter up off the streets. "We pay them every day so they take away the feeling of having had a successful experience," Wawrzyniak says.

After lunch it's back to work. Frank, a fortysomething with a tattoo on his neck, steers the equipment cart out of the garage and heads for the next round through downtown Essen. "Around Christmas, our garbage bags get very full," he says, as Mike uses a gripper to pick up dirty napkins off the ground around a winter market's poffertjes stand.

Frank and his friends began using drugs when they were about 14. Initially, they just smoked pot together in the evening. Then they started taking LSD, which progressed to heroin. The former gardener and window cleaner once attempted suicide. "I hit rock bottom after my divorce," Frank says. "But what really did it was homelessness."

The men look after each other, warning each other about oncoming cars when they cross the street, for example. They laugh and talk a lot, with their overalls functioning as something like a soccer jersey, signaling that they're a team. "The work uniform gives the men the feeling of being part of society again," says instructor Olaf Stöhr, who accompanies the quartet on their rounds. "'Pick up' gives participants their self-confidence back."

The curse of heroin

Markus would like to resume work as a tailor, he says. When he was in his mid-20s he did leather work for Boss in the afternoon and spent his evenings repairing clothes for a rocker group known as the Bandidos. Heroin was his downfall too. After being caught stealing from stores, he was sent to prison, an experience he says opened his eyes. Like the three other project participants, Markus takes his new job seriously and makes sure every last discarded paper cup lid is carefully picked up.

Thanks to the project Frank feels needed and useful again. "Without 'Pick up' I have no idea how I would be spending my days," he says. All the participants say the same thing, including 54-year-old Micha, a former broker who was once wealthy. He lived in Tenerife and drove an expensive car. After 25 clean years, he started shooting up heroin because his partner did.

"Drugs don't have anything to do with celebration," Frank explains, adding that he gets annoyed with the prejudices people have about addicts. "They're about frustration and loneliness."