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.”

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.