More Unhoused People Spending Majority of Year in Shelters

homelessness in reykjavík

The number of unhoused individuals dwelling in emergency shelters has increased. These individuals are also dwelling in shelters for longer than before, RÚV reports.

An inquiry from a representative of the People’s Party

As noted in a response from the Reykjavík City Welfare Council to an inquiry from a representative of the People’s Party, the number of unhoused individuals dwelling in emergency shelters for a large part of the year has increased significantly over the past two years. There were 317 people dwelling in the city’s shelters in 2020; last year, that number had risen to 390.

Discussions have begun between the City of Reykjavík and the Ministry of Health to find appropriate resources for this group.

“The city’s policy is that unhoused individuals requiring great, complex services should not stay in emergency shelters for more than three months a year on average. The trend has reversed in recent years, with the number of people staying in emergency shelters for more than 90 days having increased: up from 44 in 2020 to 76 in 2022. There has also been a significant increase in the number of people staying in emergency shelters for the majority of the year. In 2020, there were thirteen who stayed there for more than six months, while in 2022 there were 29.”

The welfare council’s response states that the government is currently looking for ways to respond to this development. It is often the case that those staying in emergency shelters need nursing care. Discussions are underway with the Ministry of Health to find these individuals suitable care.

A certain sign of a “lack of resources”

Last November, RÚV spoke to Svala Jóhannesdóttir, a harm-reduction expert and one of the founders of Matthildur (an organisation for harm reduction), who stated that the fact that people struggling with addiction were increasingly looking to parking garages for shelter showed “a lack of resources for the unhoused.”

The article noted that for seven hours a day, unhoused men had no shelter, with the parking garage on Vesturgata having become a popular site of injection for individuals struggling with addiction. The garage is adjacent to a health clinic, which hired a security guard after an employee was assaulted in the parking garage.

“This is a natural manifestation of a certain lack of resources that exists in services to unhoused individuals in the capital area. Nobody looks in a car basement or a parking garage unless they have nowhere else to seek shelter,” Svala observed.

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.”

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.”

How Many People in Iceland are Homeless?

homelessness in reykjavík

Unfortunately, Statistics Iceland has not released statistics on homelessness across Iceland since 2011, when they conducted a census which found there were 761 homeless inhabitants of the country. Of that group, 111 were “primary homeless,” meaning living on the street or in similar conditions, while 650 were “secondary homeless,” or moving between temporary shelters such as friends’ homes, emergency accommodation, and hostels. The majority of homeless people were male and were located in the Reykjavík capital region.

“It is difficult to gather accurate information about homeless people,” Statistician Ómar Harðarson from Statistics Iceland told IR. “We did it in connection with the 2011 census due to international obligations to report them. These requirements will not be as strict in the future and therefore it is unclear whether we will make a similar effort.”

The City of Reykjavík, however, 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, and 29% were women, and most were between 21 and 49 years of age. Just over half were living in temporary or long-term housing provided by the city, while around one-third stayed in emergency shelters. Eight people were living in the open, with no shelter that could be considered housing. City authorities agreed that more needed to be done to meet the needs of this group.

Church to Open Daytime Shelter for the Homeless

Reykjavik from above

According to a press release published today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (the national church of Iceland) plans on opening a daytime shelter for the homeless in Reykjavík in 2020. Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir established a committee to investigate the possibility last year.

The committee subsequently submitted proposals to the Bishop along with a cost estimate, advising that the daytime shelter should initially be open only to homeless women. The shelter, which is expected to be open year-round from 11 am to 5 pm, will offer hot meals at noon and refreshments in the afternoon. The Church Council reviewed the proposal and approved of the project on December 11. The Council has earmarked funds for the shelter in the 2020 budget.

In a conversation with Iceland Review today, deacon and committee member Ragnheiður Sverrisdóttir confirmed that the project was in preparation, but shied away from speculating on when exactly the daytime shelter would open: “In my experience, if you announce that you’ll open in April, you’ll open in August.”

Along with Ragnheiður Sverrisdóttir, reverends Hjalti Jón Sverrisson and Vilborg Oddsdóttir, and a social worker from Icelandic Church Aid, also comprise the committee. Reverend Hreinn S. Hákonarson, a former prison chaplain, serves as an advisor to the committee.

Extended Hours at Women’s Shelter During Cold Snap

red cross iceland

The Konukot women’s shelter will stay open all day in order to provide much-needed shelter for homeless women during the current cold weather snap in Reykjavík, RÚV reports. Typically, the shelter is only open in the evenings and early morning, from 5:00 pm to 10:00 am, but with temperatures hovering between -11°C [12°F] and 1°C [34°F] this weekend, the decision was made to keep it open during the day as well.

Konukot, which means ‘Women’s Cottage,’ is a collaborative project maintained by the Red Cross and the City of Reykjavík. According to shelter director Brynhildur Jensdóttir, there’s a regular group of women who utilize Konukot on a consistent basis and thus far, usage has been normal. However, she and the shelter staff want the women to have the option of staying longer if needed when the weather is particularly cold.

The nearby Gistiskýlið men’s shelter, also run by the City of Reykjavík, will be open during its usual weekend hours, that is the standard 5:00 pm – 10:00 am schedule. Use of this facility has increased considerably with the cold, and all of the beds have been filled. Five additional beds were provided on Friday, bringing the total up to 30.

Reykjavík City Constructs Homes for Homeless

Reykjavík city will spend ISK 450 million ($4m/€3.4m) on 25 small homes for homeless, Vísir reports. The Reykjavík city council passed the resolution on the 20th of September, which is specifically intended to assist homeless with social problems.

The city aims to have the first homes ready by the end of 2018, which will have a minimum rent will be ISK 40,000 ($363/€309). The lots for the housing has not been found yet, which will be spread over the city. “We are inspecting locations. We’ll try to refrain from having many houses near each other as we’d rather spread them over the city, and we hope that city residents will show the matter understanding”, Heiða Björg Helgadóttir, the foreman of the city’s welfare council. Heiða estimates that around 80 individuals are in need of special housing like this. “We think it’s a good first step. There are already two houses in the Grandi area which have worked well”, she stated.

The matters of the homeless were a focal point of the debate this summer. The minority in the Reykjavík city council has claimed there is inaction in these matters.

The City of Reykjavík released a report on homelessness at the end of 2017. According to data from the report, there are over 360 homeless in Reykjavík. Of this number, 68% were men, and 47% were between 21 and 40 years of age. The numbers include individuals living on the street, in shelters, in “precarious living situations,” as well as combinations of the above. Recently, Icelandic media has reported on a group of locals living permanently at the Reykjavík campsite and has raised awareness of the issue of homelessness. Many of these individuals have disabilities which impact their access to work and housing.

The number of homeless in Reykjavík in June 2017 was 349 people, which was a 95% increase from the number in 2012, when the number was 179, according to Vísir.