Orange Sky: Free laundry and conversations for the homeless

Orange Sky is providing Australians with the world’s first free mobile laundry service for people experiencing homelessness.

by Julia Migné

Nick Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, founders of Orange Sky. © Orange Sky

Domestic violence, financial difficulties, and relationship or family breakdowns are just a few of the factors that can turn someone’s life upside-down. For more than 105,000 Australians, this tipping point has resulted in becoming homeless with over 40 percent of them being under the age of 25.

According to Homelessness Australia, 1 in 200 people is homeless in the country on any given night. From improvised dwellings to supported accommodation for the homeless, the living condition faced by those Australians are incredibly difficult. In those conditions, something as basic as washing clothes or even showering becomes almost impossible and hygiene standards deteriorate quickly.

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1 in 200 people is homeless in Australia on any given night. © Orange Sky

Two young Australians from Brisbane came up with an innovative idea to help the homeless in their city. Customising an old van with some washing machines and driers, they created the world’s first free mobile laundry service for people experiencing homelessness and took the country by storm.

Since its launch in 2014, their social enterprise Orange Sky has had a tremendous impact and the concept has spread across the country like wildfire. Lucas Patchett, one of the co-founders of the company, shared with us some of the secrets behind the social enterprise’s incredible success and talked us through what triggered his desire to make a difference in the lives of Brisbane’s homeless community.

INKLINE: What triggered your desire to help homeless people?  

Lucas Patchett: When I was in high school with my best mate Nick [Marchesi], we were given the really cool opportunity to volunteer on a food van. Our school actually ran a little food van and so every morning we would go out at about 6 a.m. and cook breakfast for people on the streets. 

Orange Sky provides much more than the opportunity for people to wash their clothes. © Orange Sky

There was one gentleman, Harry, who I met then, who was just like my dad and my uncle. I couldn’t get over the fact that he was so similar to them but that he was actually sleeping on a park bench just around the corner from my school. I suppose meeting people like Harry from an early age really triggered a curiosity for both Nick and me.

We then left school and we missed that opportunity to give back. We decided that we really wanted to find a way to both engage with those people we had met in the past. We had seen the impact of having a van which allowed to go right to where people are struggling and where people feel most comfortable as well. 

We toured around with the idea of having another food van, doing it differently, but we realised that there were lots of food vans in Brisbane and in Australia and we wanted to find a new way to give back. One day, we were just throwing ideas around and one of us said: “How cool would it be to provide people with washers and dryers?” That was really the start of something.

“The laundry van acts as a magnet for drawing people together from all walks of life and from all different backgrounds.”

I: How did you get the funds to pilot your idea?

L: Nick had this old van and we got in touch with supplier companies here in Australia and went out there talking about our dream of putting that idea together. We were funding the whole thing ourselves because we really wanted to give it a crack and then the suppliers agreed to give us two washing machines and two driers.

That first ‘yes’ created an avalanche of momentum and support that set us up on this crazy journey that is Orange Sky today. Once we had a very tangible product that people could see, touch and feel, it allowed people to support us. We set up a cost of $6 to wash and dry someone’s clothes and people could support one line of washing or ten or a hundreds and very quickly we started getting donations. In our first month, we saw over 250,000 unique donations from 24 countries in the world and that was purely through the power of social media!

One load at a time, Orange Sky is having a deep impact on the lives of thousands of homeless Australians. © Orange Sky

I: Was the technical aspect of managing to make the washing machines work in the van the most challenging thing you had to overcome? 

L: That was definitely one of the most challenging things at first. Even the washing machine company said that no one had ever done this before.

Whenever you move the machines, you need to put a shipping bolt at the back of them to hold it all together. We were a mixture of stubborn,  persistent and/or naive and we convinced them that we were the right people to give it a crack and make it work.

I: What impact did Orange Sky have since its creation in 2014?

L: We’ve now got 25 vans around the country and we have 1,100 volunteers. Last week, we had our biggest week ever of washing. We did 7.5 tonnes of free laundry which is 750 loads of washing. Most of the time, a load is for one or two people so in one week we’ve been coming close to washing clothes for over a thousand people.

Volunteers are playing a crucial role in the success of the social enterprise. © Orange Sky

When we first started we very much wanted to improve the hygiene standards of the homeless but very quickly we realised that this was much more [than that]. The laundry van acts as a magnet for drawing people together from all walks of life and from all different backgrounds.

It is actually providing opportunities for people to sit down and have a chat and those conversations are really being the most impactful thing that we have been able to provide.

Our mission now is no longer about washing clothes but is about fostering communities. We can do that through the washing, through a safe hot shower, and also through conversations. Those relationships and those conversations that happen have really built up over time and it put us in the best position to be able to help someone on his/her journey.

We are not housing providers or social workers but we are listeners who are there when people want to start a conversation and that’s where our key impact is today. 

Orange Sky is fostering communities through washing clothes, providing a safe hot shower, and also by sparking conversations. © Orange Sky

I: Why do you think you’ve been so successful at finding volunteers to help you achieve your mission? 

L: For us, what it’s come down to is providing something that you can see the impact of immediately. It’s not folding clothes in the background or making sandwiches in a kitchen. You’re on the street engaging with people and connecting with people while washing clothes.

The second part is that it’s not a significant commitment. Typically a volunteer does two hours every fortnight and it just becomes a regular part of their fortnightly life. We do have volunteers who do significantly more than that but the average volunteer does a couple of hours every fortnight and that’s a really nice slice of time that people can donate.

“We are not housing providers or social workers but we are listeners who are there when people want to start a conversation and that’s where our key impact is today!”

I: You and Nick seem like a creative bunch. How does that influence the way you work?

L: Creativity and innovation are key values for us here at Orange Sky but also personally for Nick and I. We always like to think about how we can do things differently or how we can make Orange Sky different and challenge the norm so it’s definitely a big focus for us. I think a partial reason for why we are being successful is being different. 

What we really wanted to do was challenge the way we do things. Looking at how we help people on the streets, for example, it’s not about forcing people to take a specific path but it’s about being supportive and assisting people on that path when they are ready to take it.

I: What accomplishment are you most proud of so far?

L: There are so many moments that have made me feel proud as an individual but what makes me proudest is knowing that every single week 1,300 conversations take place on our vans around Australia. Those conversations are facilitated by an amazing bunch of volunteers who are empathetic and who are considerate and what that translates to is a real tangible impact.

Orange Sky is far from being only the two of us driving around Brisbane in a dodgy old van. It is now this community and all these people, believing in what we are doing, believing in connecting people, believing in those conversations, and that makes me proud to be part of that community who engages with people in a non-judgmental way.

The company is now looking at expanding his service to other countries. © Orange Sky

I: What’s coming next for you guys?

L: We’ve got some pretty big plans for the next 12 months. In the next six months, we are looking at putting our first van out in New Zealand and then early next year putting a van hopefully in Los Angeles.

These are our first stepping grounds and we’ve got a significant amount of interest in places like the UK as well. So we’re now in that enviable but also a bit daunting position of having that blueprint to start something that could assist people all over the world/ We are the only people doing it on the scale we are at so we can start to extend and help people every minute of every day.

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