William Parker isn’t letting homelessness stop him from washing his clothes.
Now in his second month without a place to call his own, Parker does his laundry at the Hub of Hope, one of only a few locations in Philadelphia where people experiencing homelessness can both take a shower and run wash, free of charge.
Laundry service is also available to in-house guests at St. John’s Hospice, drop-in guests at Our Brother’s Place, and by appointment at Philly Fight’s Critical Learning Center, for example. But Hub of Hope’s operation is by far the largest.
To use either the Hub’s showers or laundry, which are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, patrons place their name on a sign-up sheet when the center opens at 7 a.m. Each guest is allotted a maximum of one shower and one laundry load per week, and they often begin lining up well before the Hub unlocks its doors.
Parker, first in line on a recent Friday, arrived at 6:30 a.m.
“I like to be clean, and I like my clothes clean,” he said.
Jemall Davis carried his dirty laundry in several backpacks and reusable shopping bags. He said the services are keeping him “sane” as he deals with life outdoors.
“This takes you off the street for a little bit and gives you a chance to do your laundry, take a shower, wash your face, brush your teeth — do all those things that normal people do,” Davis said.
Hub of Hope began offering free laundry service in 2017, when the center — an initiative of Project HOME, SEPTA and the city — expanded into larger space in the Suburban Station concourse. In preparation for the move, Hub users were asked what services were most needed by people experiencing homelessness. “Showers and laundry” was a common answer.
Project HOME founder Sister Mary Scullion learned as much during a visit to a similar homeless-services center in Portland, Ore., which offered such facilities.
“We knew we were going to put in showers, but we hadn't thought about installing washers and dryers” until seeing the Portland operation in action, she said. “It was one of the most popular services.”
The scarcity of free laundering services likely stems from the historical framing of homelessness as an “emergency situation” versus a “chronic situation,” Scullion said. The latter is defined as living without a home for 12 consecutive months or the combined total of 12 months in a three-year period, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“When [homelessness] first became more visible in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was thought that we needed emergency services to address this devastating problem, and that conduct could be turned around in a quick amount of time — less than 30 days,” Scullion said. “What has happened over the past 40 years is that the lack of affordable housing is now a national crisis.”
On a single night in January 2018, a recorded 552,830 people were experiencing homelessness, nationwide; for about 89,000 of those individuals, the situation was chronic, according to the 2018 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. In Philadelphia, outreach workers engage an average of 6,000 homeless people each year, according to Project HOME.
While good hygiene may not be enough to propel people out of homelessness, it can improve their overall health and quality of life while going through it, said Scullion.
“Homelessness can take a very, very heavy toll on people when it is a sustained state, and that’s why it’s so important to try to make [it] rare, brief, and non-recurring,” she said. “When it gets to the point of people not having access to the ability for self-care and clean clothes, that’s a very difficult place for people to be.”
And a dangerous one, health-wise. People who wear soiled clothes for long periods of time are more at risk of contracting serious diseases like MRSA and debilitating conditions like body lice, both of which can spread on dirty laundry, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Further, poor hygiene habits can put people at greater risk of getting sick with illnesses that regular sanitation can greatly prevent (like the common cold, for example) and can worsen social rejection, according to a 2019 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
On a recent weekday at Hub of Hope, the humming of two Speed Queen washers (a third was broken) and three dryers filled the steamy, soapy back room, which also contained a few hampers and donated detergent pods. The machines are not industrial-size but do industrial-size work: Last year, they churned through 2,273 loads of laundry from 636 unique guests. If they continue to work at that rate, the machines — which, in an average household, could last more than 25 years — will be lucky to withstand five.
“Those machines, over the last two years, have gotten way more use than they would in someone’s house,” said Eliza Mongeau, an assistant program manager at the Hub who oversees the hospitality department.
Those machines are also helping take laundry off the street, because discarded clothing is a huge by-product of homelessness: With nowhere to launder their clothing, homeless people often seek out clean shirts, pants, and the like from shelters. In the process, they must discard their soiled clothing, which winds up in landfills that are already overflowing. In 2017 alone, according to the EPA, an estimated 890,000 tons of clothing and footwear wound up in landfills.
Laundry services like those at the Hub can help mitigate the situation.
To encourage free laundry services at other Philadelphia shelters and service centers, Project HOME and SEPTA have launched a fund that offers grants of about $15,000 to $30,000 to service providers to help pay for washers, dryers, and showers at their locations, Scullion said. Recipients so far have included the Bethesda Project, Philly Fight, One Day At A Time (ODAAT), and the Veteran Multi-Service Center.
“A lot of people come in here torn down,” said Tyrone Boykin, a peer support specialist who manages the Hub’s hospitality services and was once homeless himself. “To find somebody who’s had the same clothes on maybe all week, [to give them] a pair of pants, a pair of socks, it’s rewarding.”
And appreciated by those who have come to rely on the Hub of Hope for, well, hope.
“I need somewhere I can rest and keep my common sense together,” Davis said. “And keeping me together is showering, and clean clothes, and talking to God.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.