Asylum Seekers on the Streets Due to New Law

homelessness in reykjavík

Over 10 asylum seekers who have been evicted from state housing are living on the streets, RÚV reports. Some have been sleeping outside without shelter for up to three weeks and have been forced to rummage for food in dumpsters. Iceland’s Parliament passed legislation this spring that strips asylum seekers of all basic services 30 days after their applications have been rejected.

“People seem to be in hollows, for example. They’re in glades. They’re in public parks. Just somewhere where they find shelter during the night. Some are in small tents. Others don’t have a single thing to cover themselves with other than maybe a garbage bag or something else they find on the street,” says Sema Erla Serdar, founder of aid organisation Solaris, who has been combing the streets alongside volunteers in recent days in an attempt to find and assist those asylum seekers who have been evicted from housing.

Legislation criticised by human rights organisations

In March of this year, Iceland’s Parliament passed a highly-criticised immigration bill that strips asylum seekers in the country of access to housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and received strong pushback from human rights organisations, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. It was passed following its fourth introduction to Parliament.

While people impacted by the new legislation are denied basic services, they also do not have work permits enabling them to provide for themselves. They are not forcefully deported from Iceland, but they are left in a limbo where they do not have a social security number (kennitala) and cannot legally work in the country. Since the new law took effect at the beginning of July, 53 asylum seekers have been stripped of services and housing. Some have sought out homeless shelters, where services are normally targeted towards unhoused people with addiction and/or mental health struggles.

State and municipalities in deadlock

While the new legislation was still being reviewed in Parliament, Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated that asylum seekers whose services and housing were withdrawn would be able to seek services from municipalities. However, now that the bill has been made law and resulted in the eviction of some 30 or more asylum seekers from state housing, municipalities have argued that it is the state’s responsibility to provide services for the group. Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has stated that the ultimate responsibility lies with the asylum seekers themselves.

The Minister of Justice and Minister of Social Affairs and Labour are scheduled to meet with municipal representatives tomorrow to discuss the issue.

Too Many Unhoused People Must Rely on Reykjavík’s Parking Garages for Shelter

homelessness in reykjavík

Harm reduction expert Svala Jóhannesdóttir stated recently in an interview with RÚV that too many unhoused people in the Reykjavík area are forced to rely on parking garages for shelter.

The situation, according to Svala, shows a lack of resources for the homeless in Reykjavík.

Read more: Emergency Shelter Not Able to Cope

According to recent statements by experts at the Healthcare Centre for the Capital Area, parking garages have become injection sites for many of Reykjavík’s unhoused people. One parking garage in particular, by Vesturgata, has been singled out as particularly problematic because it is near a children’s daycare and also housing for the elderly.

A guard was recently hired in the parking garage following an incident where a health centre employee was assaulted in the parking garage.

Although many unhoused people have access to some form of shelter, many have no place to go during the day. Unhoused men, in fact, are forced to leave their shelters during the day, a requirement that has led to protests as winter approaches.

Read more: More Housing Needed for Unhoused People with Addictions

“This is a natural manifestation of the lack of options which is the rule for so many unhoused people in the capital area,” stated Svala to RÚV.

Svala has worked advocating for unhoused people with addiction problems for some 15 years and is one of the founders of Matthildur, an association for harm reduction in Iceland.

She also stated: “There has been a large increase in the number of people who are looking for space in the city’s emergency shelters. The emergency shelters close at 10AM and then open at 5PM. For these seven hours, people have no place to go.  We’ve found that for these seven hours, people are simply not in a good place.”

In order to better support people with addiction problems, Svala has called for resources that are available during the day as well.

The number of unhoused people has risen significantly in the last years in the capital area, with increased housing prices, drug problems, and other factors driving the trend. The capital region is also the only municipality in Iceland that provides services to the unhoused, meaning an increased burden for social services in Reykjavík.

 

Emergency Shelters Not Able to Cope with High Numbers of Unhoused People

homelessness in reykjavík

Hrafnhildur Ólöf Ólafsdóttir, nurse and head of the City of Reykjavík working group on homelessness, has stated in a recent interview with RÚV that following a large increase in the use of homeless shelters in the last two years, the system can no longer cope with the large demand placed on it.

According to the latest information from the Welfare Council, some 87 women and 214 men remain unhoused in Reykjavík. 30% of this group use emergency shelters, with around another 50% in residential facilities.

Read More: No Daytime Shelter for Homeless Men

Hrafnhildur stated to RÚV that the crisis had many causes: “It’s connected to many factors, especially the housing and rental market, and reduced access now to guesthouses, hotels, and hostels, which we had access to during the pandemic.

Emergency shelters in Reykjavík are now consistently at and above their limits, compared with 2021 where utilization of shelters sat between 60-80%, and in 2020, when it sat around 30-50%.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that around a third of Reykavík’s unhoused come from other municipalities.

Hrafnhildur stated: “It’s not that people are choosing to come to Reykjavík, we are simply the only municipality that offers these services. Other resources need to be developed and allocated elsewhere, too.”

See our Ask Iceland Review on homelessness in Iceland for more information.

 

 

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.”

301 People are Homeless in Reykjavík, Mostly Men

downtown Reykjavík

Data from a new City of Reykjavík report shows there are 301 people experiencing homelessness in the city. The figure is a decrease from previous years. Most, or 71%, are men while women are 29% and the majority is between 21-49 years of age. Most homeless people utilise housing resources provided by the city but eight do not. The chairperson of the City’s Welfare Council stated more must be done to meet the needs of that group.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Reykjavík has dropped by 14% since the last count was carried out in 2017. While men make up 71% of homeless people in the city, around 10% are foreign nationals (most also men). Just over half lives in utilises registered housing for the homeless or long-term support housing and around one third stays in short-term emergency housing.

“While it’s of course not happy news to see that there are still 300 people in the city that are considered to be in this group that is homeless, nevertheless they have decreased in number,” stated Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir, City of Reykjavík Welfare Council chairperson. “It’s good to see that about half of those people are in permanent or temporary housing. That is really our biggest project and policy, to find ways to reach people who are in that situation and find ways to get people into permanent housing.”

Read More: Door to Door Search to Determine Scope of Unsafe Housing

Eight people are currently living out in the open in poor conditions, without any form of shelter that can be called housing. “During this term we made a change so that no one is turned away from emergency shelters due to lack of space. But there are some people who do not consider [the emergency shelters] to meet their needs or don’t trust them. Of course, the project is to find a solution,” Heiða stated.

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.

Reykjavík Emergency Shelters To Stay Open All Day During Cold Spell

Konukot emergency shelter

Reykjavík’s four emergency shelters will stay open all day December 3-7, due to the forecasted cold spell. The Iceland Red Cross’s on-wheels harm reduction team Frú Ragnheiður will be checking up on their protegés, making sure they have a place to stay at night and have warm clothing.

The Reykjavík Welfare Committee activated their contingency plan for people battling homelessness due to the forecasted cold spell. Under normal circumstances, shelters are only open from 5 pm until 10 am the next day. If people spend long hours outdoors in this cold, there’s a risk of hypothermia and accidents.

The four shelters collectively have room for 63 individuals. All shelters will focus on creating a cosy atmosphere indoors so that as many as possible will stay there instead of going out into the cold.

Reykjavík Response and Counselling team, which aids people battling homelessness, substance and mental health issues, is working with Frú Ragnheiður to get information to users who might be in unsafe situations and might need to use the emergency shelters. The city’s also working closely with the National Hospital’s emergency rooms, the capital area police force, the Red Cross and campsite operators.

Frú Ragnheiður is the Red Cross’s on-wheels harm reduction team, helping people battling substance use issues in a specially equipped medical reception vehicle. They posted a request on social media asking for warm clothing for the people they help, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They received all the donations of warm clothes and down coats they need, and will not be requiring more as they don’t have space to store the clothes that aren’t in use. If people want to support their work, the Red Cross accept monetary donations. During this cold snap, the Frú Ragnheiður team will be checking up on the people they meet, making sure everyone has a place to stay.

Icelandic Police Struggle to Reach Marginalised Group Exposed to COVID-19

Police officers in masks

A group of active drug users gathered in a house that later caught fire last week, Vísir reports. Two in the group tested positive for COVID-19 after the incident and police are working to find others in the group who may have been exposed. It’s proved a challenging task, as some of the individuals are homeless.

Capital area police have been working to find and contact nearly 20 individuals who could have been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the apartment. “We’ve been contacting their groups and trying to meet them, invite them to get tested and try to explain to them what resources are available and then also try to inform them if they have been exposed and should be in quarantine, what that means and so on,” stated Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson, Chief Superintendent of the Capital Area Police.

Police have offered housing to those who must quarantine in a newly-opened government quarantine facility, the third to be established in the capital area. The new facility is specifically intended to house marginalised groups such as homeless individuals and those struggling with addiction. Ásgeir stated that police are doing everything they can to reach members of the group and ensure they receive the same service as others.

Healthcare Limited for Marginalised Groups

Guðmundur Ingi Þóroddsson, chairman of prisoner’s association Afstaða is concerned about the situation of active drug users, homeless people, and former prisoners in Iceland, particularly in light of the pandemic. “They have limited access to general health services and there are no treatments available for this group,” he stated, adding that there are indications that drug use has increased, illegal drugs have become more expensive and it has become more difficult for those using drugs to access healthcare. Though he says the opening of the quarantine facility for marginalised groups is a step in the right direction, the state and other municipalities need to follow suit.

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.

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.