Free Community Laundry Program provides community and services to unhoused population

Local News

Organizers seek funding and new location to keep machines spinning

photo of community laundry service workers
Photo provided.

On Tuesdays, after a long day of researching and writing up lab reports for her master’s thesis, Irene Shkolnikov gets in her car and drives to a nondescript laundromat where she greets the employee on shift and then gets to work laying out coins for the laundry machine, setting up tables with food and refreshments, and greeting newcomers and regulars alike.

Shkolnikov is the lead organizer of the Community Laundry Program, which takes place every Tuesday night from 4-9 p.m. at the LaundroLounge on Cook Street, and offers free laundry services to members of the unhoused community. 

The program was originally the result of an initiative by PovertyKills and the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team (IHRT) to provide an affordable laundry service to the unhoused at the outset of the pandemic, when the program was first launched.

“It became really apparent that folks living outdoors and folks living in encampments in the city to do laundry that was affordable – let alone free – laundromats can be quite pricey,” she told the Martlet.

Shkolnikov, who is in the first year of her neuroscience master’s at UVic, became a part of the program by accident as a result of her employment at LaundroLounge.  She says she quickly fell in love with the program and the people who were a part of it. 

When their funding from the federal government ended in April, Shkolnikov and eight other volunteers sprang into action. They started a GoFundMe page, solicited donations from members of the community, and donated out of their own pockets. 

So far, the group has raised roughly $2,500, including $800 from their GoFundMe, as of writing, and received technical support from the North Park Community Association. The group aims to raise $6,000 to cover their weekly expenses of $750. This funding should last the organization roughly eight weeks.

“Each week we have approximately $500 in expenses on just coin operated laundry and $150 for food,” said Shkolnikov. “We also hand out bus tickets, some of our clients we have taxi vouchers for because it can be pretty far to get here.”

While funding is crucial to keep the program going, the volunteers are also being forced to find a new location to host their Tuesday night sessions, as the LaundroLounge is scheduled to close and be demolished in mid-June.

Shkolnikov says that she is in negotiations with a laundromat but doesn’t know yet whether or not the owner will agree to host the program. Outside of seeking donations from the community and pitching in themselves, she and the other volunteers have applied for a grant through the Victoria Foundation and are researching other possible avenues.

Many members of the unhoused community spoke about what the program, the only free laundry service in town, means to them. One of the laundromats regulars, Patrick Fogarty, says that the Community Laundry Program has become a community gathering site where members of the unhoused gather not only to do their laundry but also receive services from the many care providers who show up. Fogarty says that he found out about the program from an advertisement on a bathroom floor and has been coming ever since. 

SOLID, AVI, and PEERS outreach workers are at the site most weeks — handing out safe supplies of cigarettes and joints, as well as food and information about available resources.

Another regular, Ross Turchyn, says that it is the community aspect of the program that impresses him the most.

“It’s just been a beautiful experience because of the people,” said Turchyn. “Because those people have included community across the board.”

Turchyn says that without the dedication of the volunteers, many of whom are students with very little time or resources, the program would have folded when funding initially dried up.

“All these homeless people, they have nothing,” he said. “And here’s these students churning away to supply these people who have nothing, and they’re ending up paying out of their own pocket.”

Natasha Gee, who recently discovered and took part in the program for the first time, says that she will now be coming back regularly. 

Turchyn says that he’d like to see other organizations step up to support the grassroots program. He also says that he would like to see it expand to multiple laundromats throughout the city.

“This is a necessary service,” he said. “We’re talking hygiene during a state of emergency.”

For Shkolnikov and the rest of the volunteers, the challenge right now is in finding money and a new base of operations for a program that she hopes can far outlive the pandemic. She says that she has been blown away by the amount of community support so far in their fundraising efforts.

“We’re all really grateful to just the Greater Victoria community,” said Shkolnikov. “It seemed like such a dinky little laundry program, and then when our funding was cut…people started coming out of the woodwork.”