“If I had clean clothes, I think people would treat me like a human being.”
That’s a statement made by a homeless man known as “T-Bone” in 2002 to Greg Russinger, and it’s what prompted Russinger to found Laundry Love, a unique nonprofit organization that helps homeless and low-income families pay for a simple household chore: the cost of laundry.
T-Bone’s problem represents something facing the nation’s 600,000-plus homeless people and thousands more low-income families — paying for clean clothes.
“We are very cognizant of how we smell,” explains Russinger. “You walk by a person who’s been dealing with homelessness and you smell their clothes, and you don’t know how to deal with it.”
Now running for 12 years, Laundry Love’s solution to the problem is simple. They support local groups around the country who partner with local laundromats in mass-transit areas or near apartment complexes or shelters. Those groups raise money and designate a day at least once a month when anybody in the community can come and get coins to do their laundry.
The average American family does 400 loads of laundry a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That means some families do a load or more of laundry every day. But for families who may not be making the rent, or utilities, or some who may be living in a tent, having clean laundry is a luxury: Russinger says most families using Laundry Love services do laundry once a month.
That’s because the cost of laundry is high, and washing and drying clothes at a laundromat is significantly costlier than using a washer and dryer at home, even after the cost of the machines and energy bills.
According to an estimate from The Simple Dollar, a popular finance blog, the average cost of laundry load done at a laundromat is around $3.12, while the average cost of a load at home is about 97 cents. Laundry Love’s estimates are a little higher, at $3.25 to $4 a load (for washing and drying). So an average family doing laundry for four people, once a week would need up to $64 a month for laundry. That’s three percent of the monthly income of a family living at the poverty level — and that’s just for four loads a week, almost half the amount of laundry the average family does.
Tyranny of the moment
For the thousands of homeless and low-income families in the communities serviced by Laundry Love, that $64 a month is a huge relief because it means limited resources can be allocated somewhere else.
In Dutton’s 30 years of working with people in poverty, she has seen what she calls “the tyranny of the moment.”
“For families who have lived decades without resources, they spend every single day facing those hard choices ... what is my need right now to get through the day? If the rent is due and we have brought in enough from the couple of jobs to pay the rent, there isn’t much left for something like toilet paper and laundry. They are faced with those hard choices of going without.”
That’s why a little relief on the family budget goes a long way, says Stephanie Maas, a local leader of a Laundry Love group in northwest Arkansas.
“If you are on a limited income, you have to pay for rent, utilities, food, gas to get to work, and often times clean clothes falls to the bottom of the list, when you determine the resources that would be spent at a Laundromat,” Maas says.
In her years working with Laundry Love, Maas says she has seen a huge impact on children.
“To set up a child for success, we want them to feel good about themselves,” says Maas, a mother of five. “Through the simplicity of going to school in clean clothes that smell good, we can make a total shift in how that child’s day goes. Ultimately it’s not the children’s fault or decision if they can go to school in clean clothes or not.”
For groups that register, Laundry Love sends out publicity tools like door hangers, fliers and stickers, but most of the responsibilities are on the shoulders of the group, Russinger says. Each group comes up with its own event funding, which Laundry Love suggests should start with about $200 although an event could use up to $500 in laundry quarters at a single event.
A group in Fayetteville, Arkansas, makes the day a huge event that has come to involve the entire community. The local group takes a grill and provides a meal for everyone involved. Sometimes they even have a bounce house for the kids, says John Flowers, the Fayetteville leader for Laundry Love.
Flowers says the service means a lot to him because he gets to interact with people who you may not expect are in need.
“In November, I held the door for a lady coming and thought she was a volunteer, bringing someone else’s laundry. She used to volunteer, but now through a divorce, she needed the service,” Flowers explained. “You just don’t know when you could be in that situation, too.”
And he’s seen great stories of success.
“We’re washing clothes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s not just us doing that because we want to feel good about it. We see people making the decision between eating and washing their clothes,” Flowers says. “You’re not enabling people, you’re giving them a little bit more self-worth and self-respect.”
To learn more about Laundry Love and how to register, visit www.LaundryLove.org.
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