Problem drinkers in the German city of Essen are to be given free alcohol and tobacco in exchange for helping clean the city.

As part of the scheme, "socially isolated and stigmatised" drinkers will collect rubbish and sweep the streets around the industrial city's railway station. As a reward they will be given tobacco, warm food, $1.50 an hour and three bottles of beer - once their shift is over.

The project, "Pick Up", is based on similar schemes in Holland but not everyone is happy with the public in effect subsidizing drinkers' beer habits. One homeless charity called the scheme "cheap labour" and said it was dehumanizing, Die Welt newspaper reports.

Problem drinkers in Essen will be offered alcohol to clean the streets REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

"The city wants to get the homeless out of public sight," said Horst Renner, who works at a nearby homeless shelter. "It should not be tolerated that beer is served to severe alcoholics, paid with public funds."

The chairman of Homeless Support Ruhr and Lower Rhine, Sabine Zschaler, said: "It would be nice if we could give the homeless a bit of their dignity back, when they're already at rock bottom... But that's not going to happen if we pay them with beer."

However project managers Suchthilfe Direkt said the idea behind the scheme was to stop drinkers turning to harder stuff or drugs and would also help them remain in contact with health teams and social workers. Co-ordinator Baerbel Marrziniak said: "We want to use these incentives to bring back a routine for these people and provide additional care at our facilities."

A medical observer will evaluate the results of the one-year trial, monitoring participants' health and ensuring they are receiving immunizations.

A recent study by the Munich health research institute found the number of alcoholics in Germany had risen to 1.8m from 1.3m in 2006 - a 36 per cent rise.