An Australian company that provides free laundry for people experiencing homelessness has just received a $1-million grant from Google to develop an app for charities and community groups that provide mobile services.
Orange Sky builds vans with laundry machines and showers and volunteers drive them to places where people might need a free wash. The “for-purpose” organization also built a web app to track its impact, and the $1-million grant from Google’s Impact Challenge, which was open to charities across Australia, will allow the enterprise to scale up the app and offer it to 35,000 Australian charities working on homeless outreach.
The laundry is still important, too.
For people experiencing homelessness, life is a string of indignities. No safe place to sleep. Nowhere to use the bathroom. Nowhere to shower or get clean clothes.
Four years ago, two Australian men put a washer and dryer in the back of a van and drove around to churches and parks, offering free laundry services. Now, there are 27 laundry and shower vans operating in Australia. They use generators and solar power to run the machines, and each van does about 15-20 loads of laundry and showers each day, The Guardian reports.
Clean clothes help prevent the spread of diseases and bedbugs, but Lucas Patchett, one of the enterprise’s co-founders, says the conversations that happen during laundry time are more important.
“We’re not preaching anything, or teaching anything or pushing anything. But it does take an hour to wash and dry someone’s clothes and during that time people tend to hang around. That’s when the conversations start,” he told the Guardian.
“Ninety-nine percent of the day, these people are walked past and ignored and not even looked at, and that can have a huge impact on psyche and sense of self-worth. So we just say g’day and offer something really practical that makes people immediately feel more confident to engage with the broader society.”
Because the vans are self-contained, they also can be deployed in remote areas. Orange Sky sent a retrofitted military vehicle to Lockhart River, a remote community in Queensland, where it’s helping aboriginal people prevent scabies, which is prolific at certain times of year and can be defeated by washing linens in hot water.
Orange Sky is a “for-purpose” organization. In addition to running the free laundry for people experiencing homelessness, the organization also hires some “friends on the street” to wash clothes and linens for Brisbane- and Perth-based businesses, which is both a revenue stream for the organization and a way to help people on the street get back into the workforce. Its funding comes from a mix of revenue from the “social impact washing” program, grants, and donations.
A number of cities, including Los Angeles, have set up pop-up laundry services to serve people experiencing homelessness. What makes Orange Sky relatively unique is that it’s a private-market solution, although similar organizations have since set up in Athens, Greece, and Brighton, UK. Orange Sky has also expanded internationally, debuting its first overseas van in Auckland, New Zealand last month and with plans to go to the U.S. in the near future.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.