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For Kansas Citians without a place to wash their clothes, free-laundry Wednesdays feel like a party

An elderly man wearing a black T-shirt and a blue handkerchief on his head pulls blankets out of a washing machine. Behind him are rows of washing machines and dryers inside a self-service laundry.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kenny Fetsch pulls out several freshly washed blankets from a washing machine inside Gates Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday. He was one of about 40 people who showed up for a free laundry day.

A free-laundry day at a Kansas City self-service location offers a measure of dignity and sustenance for folks struggling to find a place to wash their clothes.

It’s Wednesday. Gates Plaza Ultra Wash off Brooklyn Avenue hums with self-service washers and dryers. And it’s bustling with a festive atmosphere.

People are shouldering garbage bags, duffel bags, tote bins, rolling luggage and backpacks. Some are emptying washing machines. Others are sorting through loads of blankets, socks, pants and shirts. Some are sitting down to a plate of fried rice.

These are not ordinary customers and it’s not the usual lunch-time hour.

Most of these people don’t have a permanent place to live. They are taking advantage of a free laundry day provided by reStart.

A man wearing a gray sweatshirt pulls a laundry cart in his right hand and carries a plastic laundry basket in his left. Behind him is a bank stacked washing machines.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
David Murphy pulls his freshly washed laundry toward a dryer at Gates Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday. Murphy called the opportunity to do free laundry a "godsend."

“If you put on a pair of clean clothes, it makes you feel at least a little bit better. Like a new man,” says 42-year-old David Murphy.

Murphy is one of about 40 people here on this Wednesday.

“It washes all that negative off of you, man. It’s like it’s a new day,” he says. “Even if it’s a bad day, it’s a new day.”

Murphy lives in his car. It broke down recently, but he got it working again, long enough to find a job. He says he has been homeless for almost two years. Just outside the plate glass windows, his pet pit bulls are tethered to a bench outside – where they can keep an eye on him.

“This is a godsend to me,” he says. “I had a trunk-load of dirty clothes and dog blankets.”

Murphy says for anyone who is homeless, finding a way to do laundry is a daunting task.

A silhouette inside a self-service laundry shows a person walking between rows of stainless steel washing machines.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A client inside Gates Plaza Ultra Wash checks on their clothes while some machines sit idle and many of reStart's clients finish their laundry day.

“I washed it wherever I could, maybe in a bathroom sink in a gas station or something,” he says.

ReStart’s Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Lee Roberts says there’s no pressure on anyone to do anything or to conform to any expectations.

“This is sort of a rare opportunity to really engage with people experiencing or at risk of homelessness in a way that's really non-threatening,” he says.

Roberts looks over the arrays of washers and dryers as some people begin to filter out of the laundry area and toward the street or a waiting reStart minibus.

He says the organization will go to the different homeless camps and pick up anyone who wants to do their laundry. Others will find a ride or walk.

One hand is seen handing off a plate of fried rice to a person holding the plate. Behind them are rows of washing machines.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Carol Vlahos, right, hands a plate of fried rice with fortune cookies to a client waiting for his clothes to wash at Gate Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday.

“When we do street outreach and go to camps where people are staying, sometimes that can feel, I think, kind of threatening and overbearing,” he says.

ReStart has invited anyone who needs to do laundry to attend the Wednesday noon sessions with no strings attached, Roberts says. But the organization does extend an offer of help with whatever services someone might need.

“If they would like to talk with someone about housing or talk with someone about their current experience or about getting to a doctor about getting connected with services and get off the streets,” he says, “then we're here to have that conversation with them.”

Carol Vlahos moves quickly from helping unload a truck to spooning up a plate of fried rice to helping someone navigate the controls on a large, heavy duty dryer .

“This is my favorite time of week,” she says. “These people are houseless. When you walk in here, you would never know.”

A woman with purple and blue hair and wearing a green sweatshirt and red apron with purple and blue hair inserts a card into an industrial-size dryer inside a laundry business.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
ReStart social outreach worker Carol Vlahos uses a magnetic card to start up a dryer for a client visiting Gates Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday.

The vibe, Vlahos, says, feels like a party.

A social outreach worker at reStart, Vlahos started this program about four months ago. It’s modeled after one she ran in Seattle.

Vlahos says the constant rain in Seattle created a lot of medical conditions, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, for unhoused people. She would see clothes lying all around the city, soaking up water, growing mold or mildew.

She says she sees the results in the vicinity of northeast Kansas city.

“You don't see any more clothes on the ground because now they can wash their clothes, not having to discard 'em and go buy more or get more,” she says. “And pneumonia, bronchitis and everything is dropped because they're getting into clean sleeping bags and blankets.”

Her blue and purple dyed hair stands out in the swirl of people coming and going inside the laundry. Plus, she wears a green reStart sweatshirt and a red apron.

A man wearing a lime green safety vest and blue/black checkered pajama pants holds a belt while sorting laundry near a self-service washing machine.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Sage Mathews sorts his laundry while washing clothes at Gates Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday. Mathews said having clean clothes makes a huge difference for homeless people as they navigate their world.

It’s helpful because people are constantly calling her or poking their heads up above a washing machine, looking for her to insert the card that replaces any coins or dollar bills they need to start a machine.

ReStart uses grant money to cover the cost of these free-laundry Wednesdays. Harvesters donates much of the food that ReStart’s chef uses to make hot meals. Harvesters also supplies sack lunches and other snacks that anyone can take with them after their clothes are washed.

This is the third time Sage Mathews, 56, has used the free laundry service.

He says something simple like having clean clothes makes a huge difference in how people respond to him as a homeless person.

“It's sometimes difficult to get showers,” he says. “It is sometimes difficult to find places to do laundry. And if you don't have either of those, you are the smelly person on the bus and no one wants to sit near you and that's not a good feeling.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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