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Thinking Beyond The Next Night: Reykjavík Tackles The Challenge Of Homelessness

Thinking Beyond The Next Night: Reykjavík Tackles The Challenge Of Homelessness

Noemi Ehrat
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published August 9, 2018

A difficult housing situation has led to a reported increase from 179 homeless people in Reykjavík in 2012, to 349 in 2017; an increase of over 90% in just five years. City Council now faces the difficult task of meeting the needs of the people affected by the housing shortage, with autumn just around the corner.

Several special sessions of the council have been held in the past few weeks to address the issue, with the most recent one taking place August 1st. The meeting was called for by the council’s opposition parties, who feel that not enough is being done about the matter.

“The number of homeless people is constantly growing, but the most recent numbers are only from 2017,“ says Vigdís Hauksdóttir, of the opposition Centre Party. “There needs to be a new report with current numbers.”

There will be another meeting on August 10th, but Vigdís and her peers fear that this will already be too late. “We are trying to wake up the city council, because time is running out, and it is absolutely necessary to fix this matter before the winter comes,” she says. The short-term goal is that everyone should have a roof over their head by September. “Once we have fixed that, we can build social homes and new houses as a long-term solution,” she explains.

 “We need to build at least 8,000 to 10,000 apartments within the next five years to soothe the problem.” 

Too few, too expensive

Vigdís says that one cause of the rise in homelessness is Iceland’s financial crash of 2008. “Many people lost their jobs and their homes,” she explains. “Very few houses have been built in the last ten years, which is why they’re so expensive now. A lot of people are homeless because they can’t afford an apartment.” Vigdís explains that a new apartment costs about 50 million ISK, which she says “is absolutely crazy.” “We need to build at least 8,000 to 10,000 apartments within the next five years.” To Vigdís, this is an entirely new situation for Reykjavík. “I can’t remember a similar housing situation,” she says.

Inclusion instead of exclusion

Þórdís Lóa Þórhallsdóttir, of the Reform Party, which is currently running the city council together with the Pirates, the Left Green and the Social Democratic Alliance, has a slightly different perspective on the whole matter. “The opposition parties have been leading this discussion so far, but they have a very narrow view,” she says. “I don’t agree that the city council isn’t doing enough.” Jóna Guðný Eyjólfsdóttir, department manager at the Department for Welfare adds that, “According to financial plans, we will spend around 600 million ISK for homeless people this year, so the city of Reykjavík is doing quite a bit.”

“We don’t want to do anything without talking to the people who are being talked about.”

Þórdís Lóa explains that the opposition wanted to start the discussion earlier than the planned meeting in August. “I think we had a good discussion and they received a lot of information,” she states. “Furthermore, there will be a meeting within the Welfare Council featuring 20 to 40 associations that are working within that area.”

For Þórdís Lóa and her party, the emphasis should always lie on “samráð,” or including everyone—particularly those affected—in the discussion. “We don’t want to do anything without talking to the people who are being talked about,” she emphasises. “Reykjavík should be a city for everybody.” One of the main problems, she says, is that homeless people are a very diverse group, with differing needs.

Changing demographics

In the last meeting, the council and the opposition agreed on some short-term solutions, such as identifying five areas in Reykjavík where the city can provide accommodation for the homeless, providing housing for 25 people. A more long-term goal would be to work on the problems that lie behind homelessness, such as addiction and mental health issues.

“More women than ever are coming to seek shelter at Konukot.”

According to Þórdís Lóa, the other big group affected by homelessness are elderly people. “They have completely different needs, of course,” she says. They might need medical care and physical therapy, as they might have been homeless for a long time. “We’re talking to the Ministry of Health,” Þórdís Lóa says, “to check if nursing homes are ready for this group of people.”

Housing crisis

Þórdís Lóa agrees with Vigdís that the housing situation in Reykjavík is a problem. “We need to loosen the restrictions on renting, and build more houses for those seeking long-term accommodation in Reykjavík,” she says, “That’s not just the homeless.”

Þórdís Lóa says that they need to think about the first step of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, but that’s not enough. “We need to think one step further;” she says. “We have a halfway house for instance, a place where people can get support to be reintroduced into society.”

Women’s shelter

One place where people—specifically, women—can seek shelter for the night is the Red Cross’ Konukot. Marín Þórsdóttir, director of the Reykjavík branch, says that more women than ever are coming to Konukot. “The group’s diversity is also greater than ever before, and they are staying longer,” she says. Most women who seek help at Konukot have either drug or alcohol addiction, social or mental health issues, or are foreign women who have lost their jobs and housing.

Konukot opened in 2004 and Marín says that before that, people didn’t really think there were homeless women. “They are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, and some use their bodies for money, which can be dangerous,” she says.

“I don’t want to depend on government benefits; I want to work.”

The main problem that Konukot faces at the moment, however, is that many women come to the shelter for periods of months or even years. “It would be good to have resources for people who need long term accommodation, so we can use the shelter for its intended purpose,” Marín says. The shelter, which is financed by the the City of Reykjavík, opens at 17:00 and provides women with light dinner, a bed, breakfast and support provided by professionals and volunteers. In May and June, 35 and 41 women, respectively, slept in one of the twelve beds at Konukot, including 27 women who had not visited in previous years. Marín emphasises that long-term thinking is needed. “This is not a sprint,” she says. “This is a marathon. So we can’t think of only short-term solutions. We need to be able to think beyond the next night.”

No job, no apartment

One of the women using Konukot’s services is a 56-year old Dutch citizen who came to Iceland in 2016. Four months ago, however, she was fired from her job as a cleaning lady, and she has been spending her nights at Konukot ever since. “Here, we get good food and beds and the people are fantastic,” she says about the shelter, adding, “I’m looking for a job because I don’t want to depend on government benefits too much.” Some people have promised to give her work soon, so she hopes that will happen. “I just want to work and earn money,” she says.

For people like her, there are currently no other options than thinking about where to spend the next night, while city council continues to discuss possible solutions.


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