From Iceland — On The Outside

On The Outside

Published February 21, 2013

On The Outside
Arit John
Photo by
Patrice Helmar

Kaffistofan, downtown Reykjavík’s soup kitchen, has the off-white walls, bland decor and fluorescent lighting of a hospital cafeteria. Located on Borgatún behind a worn and graffitied wooden fence facing Harpa and the oceanfront, Kaffistofan serves hot meals and snacks between 10:00 and 17:00. Everyone is welcome, and the cafeteria is visited by anyone looking for a free meal, a place to sit and read the paper or a place to meet with friends.

Guðbjörn visits daily, after having his breakfast at home. When I meet him, he’s wearing a blue and pink wool sweater under a worn leather jacket and a teal fedora. On his finger is a silver ring, a gift from a friend. Like him, the face on the ring is long with broad features, more Native American than Icelandic. Three years ago, before his daughter returned to Iceland from Sweden, Guðbjörn had been homeless for four years, sleeping in shelters on good nights, and in abandoned buildings and outside under trees on bad nights, when the shelters were full. Decades of drug use and addiction preceded his years on the streets. What started off as casual pot use escalated to ecstasy, speed and LSD by the time he was 17. His addiction spanned decades, ruined his engagement to the mother of his child and turned long trips at sea into painful sessions of withdrawal symptoms.

After going through rehab at SÁÁ, Iceland’s Centre for Addiction Medicine, he has been sober for 12 years. When his daughter, who lived in Sweden, returned to Iceland four years ago she agreed to let him move in with her. Now he spends his days reading the paper at Kaffistofan and going to the gym three times a week.

Defining the homeless of Reykjavík

Reykjavík’s homeless problem doesn’t manifest itself in the usual ways. Droves of people aren’t reduced to panhandling on street corners or sleeping overnight in bus stops. It wouldn’t be hard to spend a week or two downtown taking in the city’s whimsical, idyllic atmosphere and be convinced that homelessness just doesn’t exist in Iceland.

In October 2012, Reykjavík City Council’s welfare department released a study on the nature of homelessness in the capital region. The report, written by Erla Björg Sigurðardóttir, surveyed the Reykjavík Red Cross, the city’s welfare services, prison services, the police, and Samhjálp, a local service organisation owned by Fíladelfía church and asked the groups to help identify the individuals they served between March and May of that year. The study found that 179 men and women between the ages of 18 and 79 were in some state of homelessness. Of the 179, 160 were Icelandic citizens, 12 were from Poland, two from Latvia, one from Britain, one from Denmark and one from Lithuania.

The study identified six types of homelessness. There are the ‘utangarðsfólk,’ which roughly translates to “the outsiders,” people who live outdoors and outside of society; those who live in temporary shelters such as Samhjálp’s Gistiskýli for men or the Red Cross’ Konukot for women; women who’ve escaped abusive home environments for crisis centres; men and women who’ve left prison, rehabilitation centres or halfway houses and have nowhere to live; formerly homeless people living under supervised care; and people living in “precarious” situations. “Precarious” implies anything from temporary situations such as staying with family and friends, to living in borderline uninhabitable buildings.

This broader definition of homelessness may explain why the problem isn’t as evident as it is in other cities. While 179 individuals are facing some form of housing difficulty, only 22 individuals, 14 men and eight women, were reportedly sleeping on the streets.

The best place to be homeless?

“I think it’s a very hidden problem. People just don’t realise that there are so many who need this kind of help. Or maybe they don’t care,” says Þórunn Ýr Elíasdóttir, who works as Samhjálp’s bookkeeper and financial advisor. She also runs Sporið, a 17-room halfway house located in the area surrounding the capital.

For many of the homeless in Reykjavík, the city offers a number of services. “It’s not so very bad, in Iceland, to be an outsider,” Þórunn says. A man can spend an entire day migrating from resource to resource.

Each night starts at Gistiskýlið, the men’s shelter on Þingholtstraeti. The building is fairly nondescript from the outside—there isn’t a large “Men’s Shelter” sign. People just know to go there and ring the buzzer on the front step starting at 17:00. There’s a camera trained on the front door, projecting black and white security footage for the men who run the shelter each night. Inside the viewing room is a cot for staff members to sleep on and cubbies to store the personal belongings and/or alcohol belonging to the night’s residents.

The shelter is three stories tall and has twenty beds. The walls are decorated with paintings of horses and cathedrals which, along with the lighting, the hospital beds and the linoleum flooring, add to the hospital vibe of the building.

The men have breakfast between 8:30 and 10:00, then head next door to have breakfast with the nuns of Kvennakirkjan. Kaffistofan is open from 10:00 to 17:00, but the afternoon is also a good time to take a shuttle to Dagsetrið, a service Þórunn refers to as a sort of day care for adults run by the Salvation Army. Guests can play pool, socialise, get haircuts, foot massages and have their clothes washed. Men who are sober and mentally able are selected to paint benches around the city for 500 ISK. Kaffistofan serves a hot meal around 15:00, and Gistiskýlið opens again at 17:00 with coffee and snacks, beginning the cycle over again.

In the city’s report, most of those served by the city’s welfare services reported that they were happy with the services provided to them, though they wished for more round-the-clock services.

“I think we have enough resources for this group,” Þórunn says. “We just have to make better use of what we have.” Yet, when Þórunn says it’s not so bad to be homeless in Iceland, she means the available resources are offering basic comforts, but they aren’t as geared towards helping the homeless get back on their feet.

“Nobody in Iceland has to starve. Nobody in Iceland has to sleep outside,” she says, “but when everyone is struggling, those who work look at the ones who don’t, and see people who spend their day being drunk, don’t have to pay rent, don’t have to pay for food, or anything except for their alcohol or drugs. We have to do something to help those people become more responsible and take responsibility for their lives,” she says.

Konukot, Reykjavík’s Women’s Shelter

Since December 10, 2004, the Reykjavík branch of the Icelandic Red Cross has been running Konukot for the homeless women of the city.

Like Gistiskýlið, which has been run by Samhjálp since fall of 1990, Konukot is run in partnership with the Reykjavík City Council’s social welfare department. After a two-year trial period, the Red Cross was given additional funds from the City to continue running the shelter.

Konukot is open between 17:00 in the evening and noon the following day. Women are asked to enter the house before 1:00 in the morning. Snacks are offered in the evening and breakfast is served in the morning. Konukot also offers bathing facilities and clean clothes.

Many of the women who stay at Konukot deal with drug and alcohol addiction, and the shelter offers weekly visits from city social workers and counselling on the connection between syringe use and diseases such as HIV.

If you find yourself in need of help, the following resources may be helpful.
Open: 17 – 10.00
Þingholtsstræti 25,
101 Reykjavík

Salvation Army
Kirkjustræti 2, 121 Reykjavik

The Icelandic
Red Cross
Efstaleiti 9,
103 Reykjavík

Stangarhyl 3a,
110 Reykjavík

Open: 10 – 16.00
weekdays & 11 – 16.00 weekends
Borgartún 1,
105 Reykjavík

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