As I walk through the streets of Athens in the middle of August, I expect to see droves of tourists unintentionally interfering with passive aggressive locals trying to go about their lives. However, the roads and footpaths seem quiet. I ask a waitress in a cafe where everyone is and she says ‘Everyone is on holiday. August is the holiday month for Greeks, so everyone is either on the islands or in another country. And tourists are only here for a night or two to see some landmarks and then move onto the islands.’ It is a slight relief that I don’t have to face into another Rome or Barcelona.
However, there are some organisations that cannot go on holidays during August. I caught up with the team at Ithaca Laundry, Europe’s first mobile laundry service for the homeless and vulnerable. They set up in the city centre on a Wednesday afternoon to provide an invaluable service to locals in need of some clean clothing.
The Ithaca Laundry
If this charity sounds familiar, it is probably because it is inspired by an Australian charity, Orange Sky who provide laundry services across Australia for those in need.
One of Ithaca Laundry’s founders heard about Orange Sky and decided to bring the concept to Greece.
Started in 2015 by a group of young people, they now have one van with 2 washing machines and 2 tumble dryers donated from LG Electrical. They operate 6 days per week at 5 points across the city where they can connect to water and electricity provided by the council. Chatting with the team whilst helping out was great to hear different perspectives. One of the employees shared, ‘We have a range of beneficiaries who are in different locations in the city. In the city centre, we have a lot of migrants, whereas at other points we see more elderly Greek people.’
Every shift, which lasts about 6 hours, has the capacity to do washing for 30 people. Their system involves separating people’s clothing into mesh bags and then loading them into the washing machine and then the tumble dryer. It usually takes about 90 minutes to complete and people often stand around and chat or come back later in the day. One of the great things about the city location is that the van sits alongside ‘Steps’ an outreach charity that provides critical services including a hot meal. Other community organisations also provide charging stations, showers, hair cutting services as well as medical and legal support.
At every laundry service, the volunteer team take down data to help them understand their community and trends. Since they started in the Athens region, they have over 2500 beneficiaries and have completed 11000 washes (70 tonnes of clothing).
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Question: when was the last time you did a load of washing? So many people in Athens don’t have access to a washing machine on a regular basis which is not good for their hygiene or confidence. Last week I caught up with the crew from @ithacalaundry who are doing amazing work on the streets of Athens! They provide a friendly laundry service to people in need 6 days a week over 5 sites in Athens. Since they started in 2015, they have helped over 2500 people and done 11000 washes! Now that’s a lot of washing!!! I chatted to a few people waiting in line for their clothes and they were SO grateful! One guy said that it’s his favourite time of the week because he can spend time with his new friends and get fresh clothes! They also employ people from socially vulnerable backgrounds to help them reintegrate into the workforce. I 💚💚💚 seeing amazing social impact on the streets. P.S. This was actually modelled on the Australian legends at Orange Sky laundry. So there is a lovely 🇬🇷 🇦🇺 link. Full article of the experience is up on planetb.com.au. Link in bio! Double tap for social impact! #socialgood #socialchange #ithaca #athens #greece #planetbinsights #travel #travelblogger #cleanclothes #laundry #laundryday
Speaking to a man from Bangladesh, he said how grateful he was for the laundry service and the new friends he has made along the way. The laundry service means he can now have clean clothes for his job. One of the workers at the laundry said ‘It is often something we don’t think about but having clean clothes is such a confidence booster. We have a lot of people tell us that having clean clothes helped them to have the confidence to apply and get jobs again.’
Restoring dignity and creating opportunities is a core value of Ithaca Laundry. They also look for ways to help people from their community get volunteer or paid work through the laundry service.
Their team consists of two full-time employees in the office, two part-time in the field and around 20-30 volunteers. Currently, the two part-time employees were previous beneficiaries of the service and come from socially vulnerable environments. By employing people from their community, they are helping them with ongoing employment and a way to get back into the job market. To date, they have employed 5 people who were previous beneficiaries from socially vulnerable backgrounds and 3 of them have moved on to new job positions.
‘We have a few paid employees who were previous beneficiaries and come from socially vulnerable backgrounds. Their job is to manage the process and ensuring all the clothes get cleaned and returned to their owners. It is really important as it helps to build their confidence. Having responsibility and a task can completely transform their mindsets, allowing them to go to job interviews and talk about recent work experience.’ One of the employees shared.
The Need Continues to Grow
The need for this service is only growing. The ramifications of the financial crisis in the early 2000s still has an impact. It is estimated there are over 20 000 homeless people in Athens alone. With the refugee crisis worsening, the UNHCR showed that more than 1 million refugees and migrants arrived in Greece in 2015 and early 2016.
There were 1,570 arrivals by sea in the first week of August, compared with 479 in the same period last year. With Greece’s refugee camps at breaking point, it is an ongoing challenge of processing and trying to manage the arrival of people fleeing war and destruction.
According to Ekathimerini News, ‘although unemployment rates have improved to 18.5 percent last November, down from 28 percent during the peak of the crisis, and Greek economy has returned to growth according to official statistics.But still Greek households have lost 25 percent of their pre-crisis income, savings have evaporated and many families rely on the pension of one grandparent to make ends meet.
After being involved in the process, I quickly noticed the use of plastic. Everyone was wearing plastic gloves and people were bringing their dirty clothes in plastic bags.
‘This is a challenge for us because we need to move away from plastic.’ A volunteer shared. Some of the ideas they are looking into include cotton bags that beneficiaries can take home and bring back with their clothing. Reusable gloves that can be easily cleaned is another option.
Beyond plastic, they are also researching how to minimise their water use and how to use solar to power the machines. ‘One thing we want to do is figure out how we can be sustainable without the use of tapping into water and electricity points. This will mean we can go to more locations and even beyond Athens.’ A team member shared.
Charities and Challenges
Accessing ongoing philanthropic funds is a challenge for charities around the world. Ithaca has the backing of corporate partners including LG, P&G, Endless, Cosmote and others. However, the process of seeking and applying for grants is time consuming. There is also a lot of paperwork involved in the impact measurement and relaying the positive outcomes to donors. Another challenge is that the individual donor market is not strong in Greece. According to the CAF World Giving Index, Australia ranks number 2 in the world for individual giving, whereas Greece ranks 143rd. This means that corporate partnerships are incredibly important for the expansion of Ithaca Laundry.
As the need for the laundry service continues to grow, the charity is looking at how to expand through philanthropic funds. Whilst still a young charity, they are already discussing the prospect of creating a social enterprise- commercial products or services where the profits can be used to continue to fund the charity laundry services. There is a long and exciting road ahead with so much potential.
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