Good news

How the grassroots Community Laundry Program is making a difference with free, fresh loads

Every Tuesday night, community members can stop by the LaundroLounge Laundromat for barrier-free laundry, a fresh meal, and vital supplies

By Emily Fagan
June 18, 2021
Good news

How the grassroots Community Laundry Program is making a difference with free, fresh loads

Every Tuesday night, community members can stop by the LaundroLounge Laundromat for barrier-free laundry, a fresh meal, and vital supplies

By Emily Fagan
Jun 18, 2021
Volunteers at the Community Laundry Program. Photo: Submitted
Good news

How the grassroots Community Laundry Program is making a difference with free, fresh loads

Every Tuesday night, community members can stop by the LaundroLounge Laundromat for barrier-free laundry, a fresh meal, and vital supplies

By Emily Fagan
June 18, 2021
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How the grassroots Community Laundry Program is making a difference with free, fresh loads
Volunteers at the Community Laundry Program. Photo: Submitted

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From 4 pm to 9 pm every Tuesday, while the hum of washing machines fills the LaundroLounge Laundromat on the corner of Cook and Johnson, a grassroots movement is at work. The volunteer-run Community Laundry Program provides free laundry services and supplies, a warm dinner, and outreach services each week to low-income and unhoused people from across Victoria.

The program started as a result of the increased pressures people in those situations experienced during the pandemic.

“There aren't a lot of places for folks to get their laundry cleaned, and with COVID restrictions got even worse, because it affected capacities within shelters and intermittent housing situations,” said Irene Shkolnikov, program coordinator of the Community Laundry Program, about the project’s origins.

Shkolnikov has witnessed people come in after a night spent out in the rain, grateful to have a place to clean and dry their soaked clothes.

“It’s a basic human right,” said Max Chen, the program’s financial administrator. “Clean clothes is also a first step for a lot of things, like job interviews.”

This initiative was originally started by the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team and Poverty Kills, but has been run by the current group of five volunteers since February, thanks to a partnership with the laundromat and financial support from the Capital Region District and North Park Neighbourhood Association.

Since the start, this initiative has been about more than just laundry. Volunteers realised early on that the time people spend waiting for their laundry allowed outreach workers to check in and offer survival supplies like bus tickets, batteries, and flashlights.

Island Health's Encampment Outreach Team, the “orange backpack team,” frequents the Tuesday night events to make contact with unhoused community members.

One week, there was a small COVID vaccination clinic outside the laundromat, where Island Health nurses administered first doses of the vaccine. Second shots may be offered the same way soon. 

In the months to come, the program is looking to add tax support and legal aid due to the high demand they’ve seen for these services. These supports are crucial in allowing people to apply for government services and ID, Chen says.

Because of COVID, patrons are asked to wait outside while their laundry is in the machines. During cold months, volunteers set up a heated tent for them to wait in, along with hot beverages like coffee and hot chocolate. 

On a typical night, Shkolnikov says they see about 15 to 30 people use the free laundry program and other services.

“We're always surprised at how many people come,” Chen said. “It's interesting just how many people are still unaccounted for [by the government]. Even though all the hotels have laundry facilities and similar stuff going on, they have limitations.”

These limitations, Chen says, can include a set number of laundry loads patrons can wash—typically one or two—and mandatory sobriety of those using the laundry facilities. Other housing facilities, like the Tiny Town across from Royal Athletic Park, don’t have laundry facilities at all.

“One sleeping bag easily takes up one laundry machine and if you live outside and have all of your belongings with you and they get soaked on a daily basis in the wintertime, you probably need more than one load to get everything clean and dry,” Shkolnikov said.

The Community Laundry Program’s aim is to make their services minimally restrictive. The only limit is that the final loads of laundry have to be started by 7:30 pm to allow for them to finish by closing time.

The program costs about $500 a week to run. Half of their funding currently comes from crowdfunded donations and half from the North Park Neighbourhood Association, although the group is currently applying for additional grant support. Previously, they received funding through the CRD’s Reaching Home initiative.

“We've managed to stay open just by the goodwill of Victorians,” Shkolnikov said.

For the program’s volunteer staff, this is a project they run alongside their full time jobs, which Shkolnikov says can sometimes be a challenge. The Community Laundry Program tries to provide honoraria to volunteers after the core expenses of the program are taken care of.

A few of those who use the free laundry service are often hired to help with tidying up and closing down the laundromat at the end of the night, which Shkolnikov says allows everyone to “share pride in the program.” 

It surprised Shkolnikov to discover how much of a community this project has become over the past few months, and how well she’s come to know the Tuesday night regulars.

“Everybody knows my name,” she said. “We check in every week and they tell me about their lives, they asked me how grad school is going—it's all really cool. I feel like I've made friends through the program.”

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