The service keeping Australia’s homeless in clean clothes

Sometimes the simplest idea can have the greatest impact. After noticing a gap in the services offered to Brisbane’s homeless, Lucas Patchett and Nicholas Marchesi kitted out a van with two washers and dryers to launch Orange Sky Laundry – Australia’s first mobile laundry service for the homeless.

Lucas Patchett and Nicholas Marchesi

But the 20-year-olds say they’ve done more than sort out homeless people’s dirty laundry in the last four months. “This isn’t just about washing clothes, it’s a catalyst for conversation,” says engineering student Lucas.

This was certainly the case on Christmas Day, when the Lucas and Nicholas (pictured above) spent several hours cleaning the clothes of eight homeless people in a Brisbane park. They were about to pack up and head home when Lucas got talking to a man named Brad (below).

“We had washed his clothes and chatted a bit. He was pretty stoked at first but he had this booklet he was flicking through and started to get a bit upset,” said Lucas. After talking to Brad some more, Lucas learned he was looking at photos of his kids who he hadn’t seen for about a month.

“I gave him my phone and told him to call them,” said Lucas. “He was on the phone for half an hour. His appreciation after that – not only for the clean clothes but having the opportunity to chat to his kids – was so touching. That was a really good Christmas.”

Being homeless often means having to neglect the simple things in life that others take for granted. On the streets, having clean clothes quickly goes from being the norm to a rare luxury.

“We saw all the great work that the food vans and other services have offered in Brisbane and Australia-wide, and just noticed that this hygiene aspect that has been overlooked quite a bit,” said Lucas.

Launched in August 2014, Orange Sky Laundry now runs five days a week, Monday to Friday. It is funded purely by public donations and manned by a growing crew of young volunteers, most aged 18 – 24 years old.

The free service usually pulls up near food vans, health vans and cook-outs so people can get their laundry done while they have their meal. Using washers and dryers donated by electronics giant LG and powered by an on-board generator, the team can clean and dry around 20kg of clothing every hour, which covers around ten people.

“We’ve established ourselves a bit more now so people know we’re coming,” said Lucas. “After the parks in the morning we’ll take it to a drop in centre. We’ve got great partnerships here in Brisbane with people like Wesley Mission, the Red Cross, and Salvation Army – those partnerships really are key to our success.”

“This isn’t just about washing clothes, it’s a catalyst for conversation,” says Orange Sky Laundry co-founder Lucas Patchett.

But, as Lucas’ story about Christmas in the park illustrates, Orange Sky Laundry does more than deal with people’s dirty laundry. The founders say it also helps them make lasting and meaningful connections with homeless people.

“It’s not just about doing the laundry for us,” explains Lucas. “The other great thing is that once you take someone’s clothes and put them in the washing machine, you’ve locked them in for 45 minutes. They’re not going anywhere, so we can have a quality chat with them, build up relationships and figure out the best services to refer them to.

“That’s where a lot of drop-in centres we work with have a problem. People come and just take what they need so it’s hard to get them to talk and work out the root cause of their issues.

“Once we’ve established a rapport with our friends/clients, the service has been very well received. We’ve also seen some people transition off the streets, which is our ultimate goal.”

Lucas and Nicholas will soon expand the service to Cairns, a city on the Queensland coast, after receiving a new van from the Jelley Family Foundation. They are also in talks to set up Orange Sky Laundry in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne.

The friends also set up an Orange Sky Laundry Facebook page which has now been liked by over 11,500 people. They use it to highlight and put a face on homelessness in Brisbane by filling their timeline with photos of people who have benefitted from the service, like Brad.

“Homelessness is quite a big issue here in Brisbane,” explained Lucas. “It’s one of those issues that’s kind of hidden in most major cities, so we’re all about raising awareness. It’s why we share stories on our Facebook page.

“Everyone’s made of the same stuff. A lot of the people sleeping on the streets are just having a rough time of it. Maybe they made a few bad business decisions and don’t have that family network of support. That it can happen to anyone is the key thing for me.”