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.”

Disappointment as Health Minister Shelves Decriminalisation Bill

Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson has received criticism for shelving a bill that would have decriminalised possession of illegal drugs in small amounts. Kristín Davíðsdóttir, director of the Icelandic Red Cross’ harm reduction team, says the Minister’s decision to take the bill off Parliament’s calendar is a big disappointment that will negatively impact at-risk populations.

“I have to admit that this somewhat surprised me, I didn’t expect it. It seemed to us that there was a certain momentum in the whole community in support of decriminalisation,” Kristín told RÚV. “We have seen a big change just in the nation’s opinion. Around 60% of the nation describes itself as supportive of decriminalisation today. So I found it sad, first and foremost.”

Complicates operation of safe injection site

Iceland legalised safe injection sites in 2020, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that the Red Cross opened the country’s first: a mobile site that is stationed in downtown Reykjavík between 10:00 PM and 4:00 AM, while shelters are closed. The site provides clients 18 years of age and older with sterilised needles, helps them avoid overdosing, and even provides warm socks, hats, and gloves to those who need them.

The regulations on safe injection sites permits clients to carry illegal substances in small doses. However, it complicates the site’s operation if those same clients can be arrested for possession at a certain distance from the safe injection vehicle, Kristín says. “And of course it’s just never good when things are set up in this way. And especially not concerning this group. This is a very broken-down group that has a hard time trusting, has a hard time trusting the system. I think it’s incredibly important to erase any kind of doubt just in order to foster increased safety and trust in this group.”

Harm Reduction Initiative Expands to Suðurnes Peninsula

frú ragnheiður á suðurnesjum - skaðaminnkun red cross

A harm-reduction initiative run by the Icelandic Red Cross has now expanded its services beyond the capital area – to the Suðurnes peninsula, Southwest Iceland. Frú Ragnheiður, as the project is called, provides healthcare services, needle exchange services, and counselling to individuals with addiction. A statistic on the project’s Facebook page states that 61% of the initiative’s clients are homeless and another 10% live in subsidised or temporary housing.

Frú Ragnheiður’s services are mobile, operating out of an ambulance which will now be servicing the Suðurnes peninsula in addition to the capital area. The ambulance will travel around the peninsula on Monday and Thursday evenings from 6.30pm-9.00pm. Individuals located on the Suðurnes peninsula who would like to access its services are encouraged to send a message to (+354) 783 4747 as early as possible on those days to make an appointment. The ambulance meets clients at a location of their choice and its services are confidential.

In 2019, the initiative provided services to 514 individuals, an increase of 20% from 2018. Many of those visited more than once, and total visits numbered 4,149. The Suðurnes peninsula is the second-largest population centre in Iceland after the Reykjavík capital area, with around 20,000 residents.

Harm Reduction Strategy Aims to Prevent Spread of HIV

A small group of individuals struggling with addiction has been receiving the medications Ritalin or Contalgin in exchange for taking HIV or Hepatitis C medication, Vísir reports. The initiative aims to decrease the spread of HIV And Hepatitis C among drug users. Staff of Reykjavík’s Welfare Department distribute the medications.

Ritalin is a prescription stimulant often used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, while contalgin contains a derivative of morphine. Már Kristjánsson, Head Physician of Infectious Diseases at the National Hospital, says there are currently five or six individuals partaking in such an arrangement.

“In order to make progress, we make a contract with these individuals. We look at their medical history, and if there is a medical reason to prescribe habit-forming medication then we make an agreement with them. Then we prescribe a strong painkiller or a stimulant in one pill in exchange for them taking HIV medication or medication for Hepatitis C,” explains Már, who adds that it is most often a family doctor that writes the prescription.

The project has been running for around one year and proved effective. Már would like to see it expanded. “We’ve managed to keep these individuals, which have no other resources, virus free.” He underlines that such arrangements are rarely necessary, however. “There are plenty of addicts who despite their drug use can take care of their own treatment, but there is a small group which is so far gone that they can’t come and are not trustworthy [when it comes to taking their] medication.”

Baldur Bergþórsson, substitute city councillor for the Centre Party, has been vocally opposed to the project, saying that it entails giving illegal drugs to addicts who are struggling the most. “They get strong prescription drugs that they crush. They then get equipment, syringes, needles, elastic to tie their arms, a cup to cook the material in, and then they get bathroom facilities on Lindargata which they can use as an injection site.”

Hrafnhildur Ólafsdóttir of the Municipal Service Centre for Vesturbær, Miðborg, and Hlíðar, agrees with Már that the project should be expanded. She underlines that the drug distribution is always carried out by nurses.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says the project is not in his jurisdiction, but expressed his support for out of the box strategies that facilitate collaboration with difficult individuals. “These harm reduction solutions are precisely for facilitating co-operation with this group.”