For two young men from Brisbane who admit to not being very good at doing their washing, launching the world’s first free mobile laundry service for the homeless was perhaps a novel idea. But Nicholas Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, the 21-year-old co-founders of Orange Sky Laundry, say their initiative is not just about providing freshly cleaned clothes, something most of us take for granted. The service also aims to give rough sleepers the basic human right to hygiene, and restore their dignity and respect.
“We had this crazy idea to chuck a couple of washers in the back of a van,’’ says Marchesi of the project, which kicked off in October 2014. “Our goal was to connect communities, raise health standards for the homeless and improve the lives of others.” The laundry-on-wheels now pulls up at parks and drop-in centres in six cities across Australia: Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Gold Coast and from this week Adelaide, too, as well as areas of southeast Victoria.
The idea was “very simple and in some ways obvious”, says Marchesi. As students, he and Patchett helped out with their school’s charity food vans, where they were exposed to a growing social problem. There are at least 105,000 homeless people across Australia every night, according to ABS 2011 census data. Sydney alone has seen a dramatic rise in the number of rough sleepers in the city centre, from 365 in February 2015 to a record 486 in February of this year, according to a local government street count. “Homelessness is a hidden issue across Australia,” says Patchett, “but our eyes were open to it very early on.”
Taking the name from British musician Alexi Murdoch’s Orange Sky, a song about helping those in need, the two men fitted out their first van, dubbed “Sudsy”, with a pair of industrial washers and dryers, a generator and water tanks.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy, that it was impossible,” Marchesi says. “We were told that putting a washing machine in the back of a van would never work … With all the moving parts, they’re not designed to be there! Then there was the issue of bringing water and power to different locations, and making the whole thing easy for volunteers to operate. We also heard things like, ‘Homeless people will never wash their clothes in a park’.”
The pair were determined to overcome all obstacles, however. “We’re both pretty impatient guys,” Patchett says. “No one had done it yet, so we thought, let’s give it a red hot crack.”
After barely 18 months, and with the backing of private and corporate donors and a state government grant, Marchesi and Patchett have grown Orange Sky Laundry to a six-van operation, staffed by more than 450 volunteers. Each van costs around $100,000 (£53,000) to revamp and launch. “Sudsy” has been joined by “Tubsy”, “Bubbles”, “Jelly” and co in servicing 46 different locations throughout Australia. The bright orange vans roam the streets of the Orange Sky Laundry locations six days a week.
“We’re on site for three to six hours, so we’ll do up to 16 or 17 loads of washing during that time,” Patchett says – that’s several hundred loads across the country each week. Rolling out with other local homelessness service providers, such as food vans, has helped. The reception has been “fantastic”, they say. People have not only been generous with their time, but have also dug deep into their pockets. For the homeless people who use the service, it’s a welcome alternative to expensive laundromats or queue-ridden hostels, where clothes can go missing.
But it’s also a conversation starter, Marchesi says. He recalls a moment from Orange Sky’s early days. “We were in Logan (an outer suburb of Brisbane), trialling the service for the first time. I met Grant, who was in his early thirties. He had to beg for clothes from op shops [charity shops] or sometimes washed his clothes in the river. After handing back his clean laundry, he told me that he hadn’t spoken to another human being in three days. That’s when I was reminded of the power of conversation … I’ll never forget it.”
With mental health and loneliness two of the key issues in homelessness (alongside domestic violence, lack of affordable housing and poverty), providing places where people can connect and exchange with one another is crucial. The number of homeless people with a current mental illness soared to 25% (63,000 people) in 2014-2015, up from 19% (44,800 people) three years earlier, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The issue can be partly linked to isolation. “There’s a mood of negativity and hostility towards the homeless community,” Patchett says. “We try to provide a more social, uplifting experience, and I think having fresh faces for our homeless friends to talk to helps.”
Although services like Orange Sky Laundry address the immediate needs of homeless people, there is widespread acknowledgement of a lack of long-term, strategic solutions to prevent people from falling into the homelessness cycle. Patchett and Marchesi say theirs is by no means the complete answer to the problem. They are keen to provide the homeless with training and employment opportunities: “Right now it’s a small part of our operation,” says Patchett, “but we want to scale up. That’s the next step.”
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In the meantime, the two social entrepreneurs are looking ahead: they hope to reach 1,000 volunteers and have another four vans by the end of the year. The service recently expanded to Adelaide and will arrive in Canberra in April – but they also have ambitious plans to go global. No doubt being named Young Australians of the Year last January (they’re the first ever joint winners) will give them a boost in their bid to keep the conversation about homelessness alive.
Patchett describes meeting a homeless person named Jordan through Orange Sky. “He went to school up the road from me. I found out that we did the same uni degree – he was only a few years ahead of me. A fully qualified engineer. But a few tough life turns, and a lack of a family network, and he was on the streets. We’ve learned that everybody’s story is unique.”
“We want to challenge the perceptions people have of our homeless friends,” Marchesi says. “We don’t want to make a distinction, we’re all just people.”
This article is part of the special Guardian Cities collaboration with the Young Urbanists and was commissioned by Alan Higgins. Check out other stories from the collaboration on Twitter at #GuardianYU