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.”

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.