More Housing Needed for Unhoused People with Addictions: ‘Living in a Tent in Öskjuhlíð Isn’t a Desirable Situation for Anyone’

Encampments of unhoused people in Öskjuhlíð, a wooded recreation area in Reykjavík, have sparked conversations about shelter and services for at-risk communities in the capital. Vísir reports.

Unhoused individuals, many of whom are dealing with addiction issues, have long resorted to camping in Öskjuhlíð when they cannot find room within one of the city’s shelters. This creates considerable community tension as Öskjuhlíð is also home to Perlan, a local attraction popular with tourists, as well as being a much-used outdoor recreation area. There are also a number of businesses and services in the area, such as a kindergarten.

The Red Cross’s harm reduction unit, known as Frú Ragnheiður, serves the unhoused community in Reykjavík, as well as people with drug addictions.

“Something we always see in the summer is people coming in to get tents and camping equipment from us,” explains Frú Ragnheiður team leader Kristín Davíðsdóttir. “And this is first and foremost because they’re looking for some peace and quiet. These are generally people who are staying in emergency shelters and naturally, there are many people per room in emergency shelters, a lot of stimuli and activity, and people just don’t have any privacy.”

‘We want people to know that there are emergency shelters and other resources available’

Sigþrúður Erla Arnadóttir, manager of the City of Reykjavík’s Westside Welfare Office says that their on-site consulting team was dispatched to Öskjuhlíð as soon as they got word that people were camping there.

“Of course we’re concerned because there are tents there and winter is coming,” says Sigþrúður Erla. “We want to be sure that people know that there are emergency shelters and other resources available.”

As for providing more housing, Sigþrúður Erla notes that there is a housing crisis all over Iceland and that this crisis has an outsized effect on marginalized populations. She says every effort is made to help unhoused individuals find suitable accommodations.

“We’re reviewing the City of Reykjavík’s strategic plan, evaluating the projects that are currently underway, and looking at trouble spots and how we can improve the services that we’re providing to this group,” says Sigþrúður Erla.

‘An emergency shelter should always be a last resort’

Many locals who Vísir spoke to expressed concern about the situation, particularly drug users’ proximity to areas where children like to play. Frú Ragnheiður’s Kristín says there’s a straightforward solution to the problem: more housing.

“If people had housing, they wouldn’t be in this situation, they wouldn’t have to be camping somewhere outside. It’s obvious that living in a tent in Öskjuhlíð isn’t a desirable situation for anyone—if “living” we can call it.”

Frú Ragnheiður is therefore calling on local authorities to put more effort into addressing the situation and providing safe housing for people with addictions. This group has gotten larger in recent years.

“There’s not enough housing,” says Kristín. “An emergency shelter should always be a last resort…But this goes to show that there is a large number of people who don’t have housing and need a place to live. And this is something that’s badly needed. Not just in Reykjavík, but all the surrounding municipalities as well.”

Municipalities Struggle to Provide Housing, Employment for Refugees

Three municipalities are struggling to provide adequate services, housing, and job opportunities to recently arrived refugees as the number of individuals far exceeds initial agreements. RÚV reports that only three municipalities—Reykjavík, Hafnarfjörður, and Reykjanesbær—currently have arrangements with the government to receive and provide for refugees, although it’s hoped that more municipalities will soon participate in resettling schemes.

Reykjanesbær and Hafnarfjörður are particularly struggling to provide for the number of refugees now living in their municipalities. There are currently 243 refugees living in Reykjanesbær, where the original agreement was for 70. Meanwhile, 270 refugees currently live in in Hafnarfjörður, which only expected to receive 100. Reykjavík agreed to receive and provide for 220 refugees but is currently home to 356.

The Directorate of Labour took over service provisions for refugees on July 1. It now provides housing, a weekly allowance, necessary healthcare, and transportation for recently arrived refugees. Gísli Davíð Karlsson, the Directorate’s Manager of the Department of General Services, says the transfer of refugee services went off without any major problems. But even so, once these individuals have had their applications for asylum approved, they may face waits of up to eight weeks to complete the resettlement process with the Directorate of Labour. And Gísli Davíð says the general lack of housing is causing considerable delays and problems.

“The housing situation is difficult, and we’ve really felt it,” said Gísli Davíð. “Yes, we managed to sort out housing this spring when there was an increase, but the housing market has become a lot more difficult in terms of possible housing for these groups of people because not all accommodations are suitable. Now the challenge—for local municipalities, too—is what housing is available? Where can we accommodate people through the winter? I wouldn’t say we’re bursting at the seams yet, but there’s a decent strain on the system.”

The Directorate of Labour has a ‘Support for Refugees’ page on its website (in English), where it provides information both for refugees themselves regarding recruitment grants, job counselling, and education, as well as for local employers who are looking to hire refugees. Those with available work opportunities are encouraged to email the Directorate at flottamenn[at]vmst.is.

City of Reykjavík to Offer Emergency Housing to Those Displaced by COVID-19

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The City of Reykjavík will offer short-term, emergency accommodations to people who have lost their housing due to the COVID-19 crisis, Vísir reports. The service will be open 24 hours a day and will be in operation for four months.

The initiative received funding from the Ministry of Social Affairs and is expected to cost approximately ISK 85 million ($596,000/€546,000). The Ministry says that the number of people seeking social and housing assistance has been increasing.

“These are people who were living abroad, with relatives or friends, or were in other short-term housing and are now in financial and housing difficulty due to COVID-19, for instance, because of risk of infection in their current residence or people who need to go into quarantine and then lose their housing… These situations can come up quickly and require immediate remedies.”

The emergency housing will be available to people regardless of their legal domicile. “The service will connect the person in question with a social worker in the municipality where they are legally domiciled,” reads the Ministry’s announcement, “but they will be allowed to stay in the short-term housing until their case has been channelled to the municipality in which they live.”

Similar measures have been discussed in Akureyri, but as of yet, have not been put into action.