Only when I visited places like Naples, Bangkok and New York, while I picked up my old profession as a ship’s chef on traditional cruise ships, I realised how much I missed the Amsterdam Red Light District. Compared to other communities of hookers, pimps and gangsters, Amsterdam was so peaceful and relaxed. Only then I understood why Police Commissioner Toorenaar was so proud of “his” city, “his” criminals.
I talked with him on the day I left to Jakarta, for another trip. He said, “Jack, we need guys like you here. Don’t be a stranger.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” I said.
About a year later I visited New York. I always envied the rock stars for their life style, so while I was there and while I could afford it, I wanted to stay at the Chelsea Hotel. But within a couple of weeks I ran out of money, and I needed a job. With the help of a friend I ended up as some kind of social worker for the worst heroin junkies; in Black Harlem, of all places.
I had a mentor for two weeks. After that I was on my own. My job was to persuade heroin junkies to get a shower and a free meal, but to be able to do that, I had to go where they were, I had to live where they lived, and I had to win their trust.
One of my difficulties was that I was the only white guy in the neighbourhood. Not even black taxi drivers would take you to Black Harlem in those days. It was a dangerous place.
But quite soon I was able to win their trust, and not only theirs, but also the trust of “normal” people in the area. All of a sudden I didn’t have to pay for my coffee or my bread; it was on the house.
I did that job for four months. I went back to Holland when a friend told me that the Dutch Ministry of Justice was looking for people with experience in the field of “easily accessible social services”, something completely new in Holland. I had my experience in the Red Light District, and also some experience in Black Harlem, in an experiment that was actually a form of “easily accessible social services” avant la lettre, so I thought my chances to get the job were pretty good.
Despite my street experience, I needed a formal training, but I was told I could study on the job; the ministry would pay for it. So I was hired as a “project manager” of the Directorate of Probation Services of the Ministry of Justice. My task would be setting up easily accessible walk-in centres in the biggest cities of the Netherlands, starting with Amsterdam.
Since I still had my house in the Amsterdam Red Light District, this more or less meant that I would be working on my doorstep.
It was a crazy situation: I would be studying in the Social Academy as a freshman, only to lecture a class of graduates a couple of hours later, in the same Academy, as a guest lecturer, specialised in easily accessible social services.
Because of my extraordinary experience and work situation, I graduated within three years, but I wanted to learn more, so I studied psychology, criminology, and criminal law, at the expenses of the Ministry of Justice.
Within the Ministry I was the odd man out. I was always dressed in denim jacket and jeans, and I was the only one who refused to wear a tie. Being the odd man out had its advantages, i.e. I never had to show my ID card, because all the security guards knew who I was. They probably thought I was doing undercover work. How exiting!
Finding suitable staff and training them proved to be extremely difficult. There were plenty of middle class housewives who wanted to help “these poor people”, but they were not the material I was looking for. I was looking for tough people, who would be able to relate with criminal junkies, on a basis of mutual understanding and respect, without letting themselves being manipulated by their clients. So some of my staff were ex policemen, ex prison guards, or ex psychiatric nurses, while others came from families in which criminal behaviour and the use of drugs wasn’t anything exceptional. The skills of these people complemented each other.
My staff wasn’t directly hired by the Ministry of Justice, but by private foundations, which were subsidised by several ministries. They had budgets to work with, which enabled them to hire and train staff, rent or buy buildings, and organise activities and educational projects.
One of the main problems with the majority of our clients was that they were involved with social services, child protection services, probation services, and that they were seeing professionals like barristers, psychiatrists, general practitioners, and pharmacists. All of these institutions and professionals were anything but easily accessible.
So we needed to build an integrated social services model, tailored to the conditions of our clients, which meant that we would have all these specialists in the house. If a client needed to see social services, for instance, he could just talk to the social services delegate in the walk-in centre, and if he needed to see a barrister, he would always find one in the walk-in centre. All our social workers were sworn in as probation officers, which meant that they could visit their clients in prison at all times, while their reports to the court were as valid as those of traditional probation services. It was an unprecedented situation and it took the courts, prisons, and other institutions months to years before they were used to it and accept it, but to our clients we were heroes.
So there I was, back in my neighbourhood, but in a different capacity. No longer was I the bartender of a pub frequented by pimps and prostitutes, a semi-criminal in the eyes of some, but an officer of the law instead. That meant I was “one of them”, that I had gone to “the other side”. It also meant that I myself saw things from a different perspective, but I still had my need of inclusion, I still wanted to be part of them, so I had to show them that they could trust me, like they – up to a point – trusted Police Commissioner Toorenaar.