It may seem like an unlikely place to find generosity during a global pandemic, but local laundromats are the focus of a charity initiative to give free laundry services to needy families and hospital workers.
Free Laundry Friends, launched last month, is teaming up with laundromats in Mountain View and San Jose in a bid to waive the cost of washing and drying clothes for customers affected by the new coronavirus, which has wreaked havoc on the economy and resulted in massive job losses.
Though fundraising efforts have largely centered on medical supplies, rental assistance and groceries, public laundromats present a creative way to help vulnerable families pay the bills, said Polly Liu, a Los Altos resident spearheading the GoFundMe. People who may not have the means to wash their clothes at home rely on laundromats, she said, and this could be a rare but important way to help people missing out on government assistance, including undocumented immigrants.
"Laundromats are really the perfect place to find that population of folks," Liu said.
Getting the idea off the ground was a little touch-and-go at first, starting with slightly awkward cold calls to laundromats to solicit interest, Liu said. One of the first to jump on board was El Camino Laundromat on El Camino Real in Mountain View, which has an onsite attendant to reimburse people once they've finished using the machines.
Figuring out which customers are "needy" is an inexact science, but there's an effort to figure it out, said Ken McConnell, who owns the laundromat. The attendant knows frequent customers pretty well, he said, and there's a clear difference between a family coming in with huge loads of clothes versus someone just washing their bed sheets and comforter.
"He has a better idea of who the families are who are maybe in more need," McConnell said. "It's the ones that are making a choice between whether to do laundry this week or pay the rent instead."
In places were there is no attendant, things are a little trickier. In extending the donations to laundromats in San Jose and elsewhere in Mountain View, Liu said they've been pre-loading laundry machines with funds so people who come in get the first round of washing and drying done for free. It's not perfect and you can't really vet who benefits, but the need is high in those lower-income neighborhoods.
"These are really poor communities where people are literally lugging laundry down blocks, getting their laundry done and bringing it back because they don't have a car," she said.
Taking a more targeted approach for health care workers in Mountain View, Liu said they purchased $3,000 in gift cards to Oasis Laundry on Grant Road in Mountain View, which were donated to 140 custodial staffers working at El Camino Hospital. The original plan was to offer 20 gift cards in a raffle to the hospital's environmental services workers, who are tasked with cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and equipment, but Liu said they decided to ratchet up the contribution to avoid having winners and losers.
The laundromats can certainly use the extra foot traffic. Multiple laundromats in Mountain View have reported steep drops in customers in recent months, 25% to 50% lower than normal, due to the coronavirus. The likely cause, McConnell said, is that people are opting to stay home and avoid public areas. Laundromats are often seen as recession proof, but people are worried about the close quarters and the stream of strangers using the same machinery and touching the surfaces, particularly older customers, McConnell said.
"We wipe down the carts and machines, but it's a constant battle to kind of keep up with helping people feel more comfortable," he said.
Doing laundry is one of those things that is essential even if people don't think about it, McConnell said, and it's been interesting to see the response from customers who get comped for free services through the fundraiser. He said the $20 doesn't sound like a lot, but the recipients seem like they're in a happy place when they walk out with a clean cart full of clothes.
"It may not seem like much, but from the smiles on their faces it looks like they've got a winning lotto ticket," he said.