Consider the numbers. It is estimated that there are between 40 and 50 “literally homeless” (people living on the street) in Iceland, with somewhere between 80 and 100 people in some form of near homelessness. Even if we look at these numbers from a per capita point of view, only a little over one tenth of one percent of Icelanders are literally homeless, as opposed to one percent of other western Europeans. Among European countries with a stable social system, Iceland’s GDP per capita is $30,900, compared to $27,700 in the UK and $27,600 in France and Germany. In a country where the average person is making more money – and where there are ten times fewer homeless people – than the rest of western Europe, one would think that literal homelessness in Iceland wouldn’t even occur in the first place; that the unfortunate few who did land on hard times, for whatever reason, would find multiple resources at their disposal to turn their lives around. Sadly, this isn’t the case.
The bar or jail?
The most popular shelter for the homeless in Iceland is the police station. Most can just show up there and get a place to sleep for the night, although on some nights committing a small crime is necessary if one wants to get a bed. There are no day centers for the homeless which, in most countries, provide job training and placement as well as substance abuse councilling. Rather, the daytime options in Reykjavik range from hanging out at the bus stations, Kaffi Austurstræti (known as “Kaffi Skítur” to many), or Kaffistofan on Hverfisgata. On top of all, almost no member of parliament has even so much as mentioned that addressing the homeless problem in Iceland is necessary.
One of the more popular arguments made against using more state money to help Iceland’s homeless bases itself, oddly, on how few of them there are. Because Iceland is a wealthy nation with a strong social system, the line goes, these few people on the street must obviously be drunks and junkies who don’t want to be a part of society. But as with the question of the chicken and the egg, there are no figures which show whether these people became homeless because of their substance abuse problems, or if the substance abuse came about after they became homeless. One thing that’s for sure is that it’s almost impossible for most of us to imagine what it must be like to live day to day without shelter or income, cut off from our families and rejected by the society which raised us – many of us would most likely crack and turn to some form of self-medication or another. It’s even more impossible to think of a reason why a country as rich as Iceland with so few homeless people would decide to turn its back on them.
Cheaper than a chunk of ice
In all fairness, the city of Reykjavík does own three temporary shelters in town – one on Miklabraut, one on Þingstræti and the Red Cross shelter. Yet these places serve as a place to sleep and little more, which seems entirely unfair when we compare Iceland to Denmark (as we are often wont to do).
Denmark and Iceland have about the same per capita GDP and about the same percentage of literally homeless. Yet in addition to shelters, Denmark also provides its homeless with job training and job placement programs, drug and alcohol councilling, and numerous day centers. For Iceland to ignore the opportunity to save what few people that have fallen through the cracks now only opens the door for Iceland’s homeless to grow in number. Instead of filling in these budding cracks, Iceland is letting them spread.
The government was able to find 80 million kronur to send a chunk of ice to France as part of an exhibition and has set hundreds of millions of kronur aside for a new music hall. The funds for tackling homelessness effectively do exist.
One idea finds its inspiration in the numerous large and empty buildings downtown which are currently up for sale. The state could buy one such building and renovate it into the first state-run shelter for the homeless in Iceland. Within this same building there could be employment councillors, substance abuse councillors, job training classes, day care, and a general daytime activity center where people won’t have to spend their time drinking beer and staring out the window at the world passing them by. Rather, such a “turn-around centre” would be there to bring people back into a society that had, until then, considered it acceptable to let some of its citizens fall to the wayside. Hopefully, the day will soon come when such a time is just a distant memory.