Luc Patchett and Nic Marchesi engaged in conversation beside one of their Orange Sky washing vans.
Luc Patchett and Nic Marchesi engaged in conversation beside one of their Orange Sky washing vans. Photos Contributed

Friends start free mobile laundry service for homeless

TONIGHT more than 105,000 Australians will sleep in makeshift accommodation. The more fortunate of that number will find a bed on a friend's couch, in rat-ridden rooms in low-cost boarding houses, caravan parks or condemned buildings.

But most of those 105,000 people will sleep rough.

So as you and I snuggle into our warm beds, our heads on comfortable pillows, they will make do however they can - on park benches or cardboard boxes, in doorways and cars, under bridges, in alleyways, tent cities and in supermarket basement car parks.

Thanks to television, our picture of the homeless is centred on the stereotype of unwashed, drunk old men pushing their possessions around in battered old trolleys. But the reality is that this hapless community, one in 200 Australians, draws its numbers from former professionals and housewives, from teenagers robbed of their youth, from grandmothers, academics and families.

Some 60% of homeless people are aged under 35, 27% under 18. More than 8000 are young children.

Beyond those statistics are the tragic stories of abuse and mental illness, drug use, alcohol and gambling addictions and unemployment, stories of injury, ill-luck and misfortune when circumstances meet to create a perfect storm.

There are stories like that of Eddie Griffiths, a former travelling salesman, who found himself on the streets after a family tragedy, or 22-year-old Rebecca Stevens who ran away from sexual abuse at home five years ago and now has two-month-old baby Lucy to look after.

There is Margaret, one of the rising number of Australian women aged over 55 who after living a conventional life working and raising a family, is now unable to afford the private rental market. Margaret sleeps on a friend's couch or in crisis accommodation when she can, but on more nights than she cares to remember, bed is the cold doorway of a swanky Brisbane store.

Best friends Adam and June have a story too. For the past year they have slept in Adam's car, an old Magna which leaks when it rains. They have a blanket each which is proving little consolation on cold winter nights and use the public toilets at the local shopping centre to wash up in. Their only meals come from the soup kitchen of the Salvation Army.

Lucas Patchett and Nic Marchesi are riding high on optimism for their Orange Sky project.
Lucas Patchett and Nic Marchesi are riding high on optimism for their Orange Sky project.

Solving Australia's homelessness problems seems to be a complicated affair tangled in a bureaucracy that in the first instance is yet to offer an encompassing definition of homelessness. The waiting list for public housing is 16 years and those at extreme risk have to wait at least 18 months.

That leaves the heavy lifting to charitable and not-for-profit organisations that provide life-saving - albeit temporary - accommodation, medical services, warm meals and compassion.

It was this lack of services and the desire to afford our most unfortunate some semblance of dignity that proved the driving force behind Orange Sky Laundry, a free mobile laundry service for the homeless.

The brainchild of two young Brisbane friends, 20-year-old Nicholas Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, 21, Orange Sky is run by volunteers aged 18-35 and is intent on improving the hygiene standards of a community that simply cannot spare the money it takes to wash their clothes at a laundromat.

Ten months ago Nic and Luc decided to put their passion for helping the homeless into action. They fitted out a van with two donated industrial washers and dryers and drove it to locations around Brisbane piggy backing off established food and medical vans also offering free services.

"Our eyes were open to the struggles of the homeless during school when we helped out with food vans and we knew there was a large population here that were unfortunately living on the streets," Nic said.

"We wanted to start a charity to help the community, but also give people our age and younger an easy opportunity to volunteer. Orange Sky is not simply about washing and drying someone's clothes. We can help improve hygiene standards, but also help restore respect too.

"This is our small way of contributing. Our program doesn't directly solve the problem of homelessness, but all those wonderful services out there collectively working together will hopefully one day solve this problem."

Charitable ideas, even one as noble as this one, are not without their challenges and Nic and Luc had to contend with more than just red tape and sceptics.

"There was a little doubt when we were working out how to get the machines in the first van," Luc said. "There was no precedent for us to work off. The architect who helped us said the machines would probably fit, but we still needed to build a platform above the wheel arches and take some of the panels off to squeeze the machines in."

That first van now visits 10 Brisbane locations five days a week and is staffed by 40 volunteers, but Nic agrees the logistics were a bit of a speed bump adding that working in with other organisations and recruiting volunteers was also somewhat of a learning curve.

"Luckily Lucas and I really enjoy innovation and problem solving, so we enjoyed that part of the challenge," Nic said. "People say we have taken a massive risk because we are young and are volunteers running an organisation of volunteers. At the moment we are both living with our parents. We are not married and don't have young families of our own to look after so it's the best time to take a risk and it is so incredibly rewarding."

Orange Sky is now operating vans in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast and thanks to a $30,000 Jetstar Flying Star grant, they were able to take their service interstate, with their first van in Melbourne hitting the road last month.

"The Melbourne launch was really exciting for us," Nic said. "Thanks to the grant we were able to roll out this service in a month. That van is self-sufficient so apart from the four machines it also runs on a diesel generator, has a 270-litre water tank and a grey water system. This makes us more mobile because we don't have to plug into a tap in a park or get power from a local building. In our first week we washed and dried over 50 cycles and had 250 volunteer applications."

Despite offering a free service, Orange Sky has had to work hard to convince people to use it. The homeless community have to live on their wits with slight errors in judgment often resulting in violence and theft so, naturally, they are wary of gift horses.

"We had to earn their trust," Luc said. "At first they can't believe it's free and are looking for the catch, but once the trust is built up, the word gets around and the service gets a massive influx of operation. Our volunteers offer a different perspective and a different blend to the conversations that usually happen on the street."

Luc and Nic have big dreams for Orange Sky and are working to have vans in all capital cities and regional centres. Their feet are grounded in reality, but while they acknowledge there is a long road ahead, their energies are fuelled by the need to bring sunshine to the suffering.

It is the stories of the homeless, the human faces that resonate with them long after the last spin cycle is complete.

"You hear some stories that are pretty humbling and harrowing and they can be difficult to listen to," said Luc. "The one story that will stay with me forever is that of a man whose clothes we washed in the first week we set up. He used to be a respected chemical engineer and it was pretty mind-blowing for me especially as I am studying engineering. It was pretty close to home. He lost his job, was forced onto the streets pretty quickly and it was a reminder how quickly things can fall apart. Being able to wash his clothes was the least I could do for him."

For Nic, too, it is the conversations that linger.

"We have been blown away by the people this service has been able to help on a regular basis," he said. "There is such a large community of people who are sleeping rough who have just had bad luck.

"We have met people who have worked all around the world, chefs, fly-in fly-out workers, doctors, lawyers and so many professionals. They lose a job, their kid gets sick, they make a few bad decisions and suddenly are on the street.

"The stories and the people we are able to help is why we do it, being able to connect them back into the community is our biggest goal."

Homelessness Prevention Week is next week, from August 3-9.

What's in a name?

Orange is the boys' favourite colour but is also the name of a song they love by British singer Alexi Murdoch. The emotive lyrics talk about having a dream to help needy, troubled brothers and sisters.

"Nic and I, not in a religious way," says Luc, "but we live our lives by the golden rule of treating others as we'd want to be treated and living to help other people. Everyone deserves clean clothes right?"

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