Cold Spell Continues: Emergency Shelters Open All Day Today

An icy Reykjavík City Pond.

The City of Reykjavík has activated an emergency plan and will keep emergency shelters open around the clock today, Vísir reports. An unhoused man hopes that the city will continue keep emergency shelters open 24 hours a day for the duration of the cold spell, predicted to last ten more days at least. The cold weather is expected to have wide-ranging effects.

The unhoused hope for extended shelter

As reported by Iceland review earlier this week, temperatures in Iceland have hovered well below 0°C over the past week – and if weather forecasts prove accurate, temperatures are expected to drop even further this weekend and the next.

In response to the cold weather, the City of Reykjavík has decided to keep its emergency shelters open over the next 24 hours (the shelters are normally open from 5 PM to 10 AM). The city will then assess the situation, going forward, tomorrow. Speaking to Vísir, Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir, Chair of Reykjavík City’s Welfare Council, stated that City of Reykjavík would be reviewing the possibility of expanding shelters:

“It’s our priority that no one is made to sleep outside or is turned away at night. If only there were more organisations like Samhjálp, Icelandic Church Aid, and the Icelandic Red Cross that were willing to help, that would be very helpful.”

Heiða pointed out that approximately 300 people had availed themselves of emergency shelters in the city this year, of which a hundred came from other municipalities. Other municipalities must get involved: “We’re learning, and we need to listen and evaluate and do as well as we can, but other municipalities besides Reykjavík need to involve themselves.”

Ragnar Erling Hermannsson, who has been unhoused for some time, hopes that emergency shelters will be kept open around the clock while the cold spell lasts:

“I’m going to see if they keep the shelters open around the clock beyond today,” Ragnar observed. “It makes you wonder if this is just some kind of showmanship by the city. In reality, they have a choice between two or three people dying today or keeping the shelters open while the cold lasts.”

A difficult time for small birds

Aside from the dangers that freezing temperatures pose to people, the cold spell also makes it difficult for small birds to find food and running water.

“It’s hard to find food in this frost,” Hólmfríður Arnarsdóttir, Director of BirdLife Iceland, told Vísir. “There are only a few hours a day of sunlight, so there is less time to look for food and more time that must be dedicated to keeping warm, i.e. the entirety of the night.”

Hólmfríður stated that it is extremely important for people to feed the birds and make sure that they get water while the cold weather persists: “It’s best to feed them twice a day: at dawn and at dusk.”

More pools to be closed?

On Tuesday, Rangárveitur, which manages the hot-water supply in three municipalities in South Iceland, published a press release to notify residents that the hot-water supply was nearing its limit. In light of the cold, the local authorities, on the advice of Veitur, decided to close three public pools in the area – in Hvolsvöllur, Hella, and Laugaland.

The cold could also affect swimming pools in the capital area. Steinthór Einarsson, Director of Operations and Services at ÍTR (Sports and Outdoor Activities), told Vísir yesterday that three public pools may need to be closed:

“There are three pools, Vesturbæjarlaug (West Reykjavík), Sundhöllin (Downtown Reykjavík), and Dalslaug (Grafarholt), which we may need to close due to the cold. I just received a message stating that they don’t need to be closed tomorrow (Friday, December 16), but we reassess every day. As there is a very cold forecast ahead, it’s impossible to say for certain.”

No Daytime Shelter for Homeless Men, Despite Protests

homelessness in reykjavík

Emergency shelters for homeless men will remain closed during the day, according to the Director of Reykjavík’s Welfare Council. The city will continue to focus on the buildup of more permanent housing resources for the homeless. “We’re literally on the streets, no matter the weather,” one homeless man told Vísir.

A sit-down strike at a Grandi emergency shelter

Yesterday, Vísir.is reported on the numerous homeless women who seek refuge at the Konukot emergency shelter. The shelter is overcrowded most nights, too small to meet demand. In an interview with Vísir, Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir, Director of Reykjavík’s Welfare Council, stated that the Council was currently completing an appraisal of Konukot to establish whether more space was required.

“We’re also considering providing more halfway homes, so that individuals would first be allotted a room where they’re offered necessary support, prior to those individuals moving into dedicated apartments.”

Despite the congestion at Konukot, homeless women can seek shelter at Icelandic Church Aid during the day, while homeless men can only seek shelter at Samhjálp between 10 AM and 2 PM. With winter fast approaching, a group of homeless men organised a sit-down strike at an emergency shelter in the Grandi neighbourhood of Reykjavík on Wednesday to protest.

Vísir spoke to a few protesters, who voiced their indignation at being turned out of emergency shelters during the day, in all kinds of weather and physical states. Among the protesters was Davíð Þór Jónsson, one of the founders of Viðmót – an organised interest group on the rights of drug users. Davíð was diagnosed with pneumonia last week but has had no choice but to roam the streets in the cold.

“Our only refuge during the day is Samhjálp, which is open between 10 AM and 2 PM. After that, we’re literally on the streets, no matter the weather.” Davíð Þór wants homeless men to be offered comparable shelter as Icelandic Church Aid offers women. “There are plenty of talented people who are homeless; something good could be made of their talents if they had appropriate shelter.”

Seeking to provide more permanent solutions

Despite such concerns being raised, Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir told Vísir that the emergency shelters will remain closed during the day: “There are always places of refuge for everyone, but the emergency shelters will not be open. The city libraries are always open. People can sit down, have some coffee, and relax,” Heiða told Vísir, explaining that the city conceives of emergency shelters as temporary resources.

“The ideology behind emergency shelters is that you can stay there overnight if you don’t have a place to stay. But it isn’t housing. You don’t live there. This is a temporary option, but we don’t want people to settle down. We haven’t emphasised an increased number of emergency shelters, having chosen to focus on providing more permanent housing.”

According to Heiða, the City of Reykjavík has allocated 130 apartments to homeless individuals since the beginning of last year. “Where you can settle down and make a home for yourself, which is not something you can do at an emergency shelter.” According to Vísir, 61 individuals are on a waiting list for housing in Reykjavík. A third of those who seek out emergency shelters are legal residents of other municipalities, which means that they are not eligible to apply for housing in Reykjavík.

As noted by Iceland Review, the City of Reykjavík released a report in 2021 that “found 301 people were experiencing homelessness in the city. This is a decrease of 14% since 2017. According to data from the report, 71% of the individuals were men, 29% were women, and most were between 21 and 49 years of age.”