Through laundry, aid group aims to connect with Reno’s houseless

At 11 a.m. on a Friday, the LaunderLand laundromat off Wells Ave. near Reno's Midtown district is quiet. Only sounds from one or two laundry machines churning fill the air, as a man sits on a bench, swinging his feet.

An hour later, the laundromat is transformed. Outside the windows of the shop, people share slices of donated pizza and bagels. Dogs dart between large bags filled with laundry, raising their heads for a scratch. Color-safe bleach, Pine-Sol concentrate, detergent pods and dryer sheets sit atop the counter — available to anyone who needs them.

The sharp scent of cleaning products wafts through the laundromat as three volunteers help load washing machines with coats, blankets and other items, checking in with people about what temperature the water should be for different loads and asking about housing situations or supportive services. 

The volunteers are with Laundry to the People, a mutual aid organization (or group where people work cooperatively to meet the needs of the community) offering free laundry services each week to Reno's unsheltered populations.

In the grand scheme of Reno's housing crisis and rising income inequality, helping people with laundry services may not address root causes of any problem, but it can mean the difference in maintaining a job or feeling more comfortable, said Rosie Zuckerman, one of the three co-founders of Laundry to the People.

"It's definitely a Band-Aid," Zuckerman said. "But this is a small thing I can do. At least I know somebody can have some clean clothes and not have to wear dirty socks and dirty underpants, or a moldy smelling blanket."

Inspired by a desire to reduce waste and help others access clean and dry clothing, Zuckerman and cofounders Ilya Arbatman and Àlex Muñoz Viso started the organization almost a year ago. At first, Arbatman said they would pick up people's belongings in a van and shuttle it back to the laundromat, but after encampment sweeps, the organization no longer could sustain that practice. Instead, organizers spread the news about the location via word of mouth or flyers.

"Anybody's welcome to come get their laundry done," Arbatman said. "We get it paid for, provide detergent, the laundromat kindly pays for the drying. [It's] aimed generally at the houseless community and people in need, but we don't turn anybody away."

Other mutual aid organizations and donations from community members support the financial costs for the roughly 10-25 people who show up each week to wash their laundry. Arbatman added that having a consistent laundry schedule can add stability to chaotic schedules and allow for genuine connection.

"You might be able to help someone out by giving them a meal and stuff, but it's really only through getting to know someone that you kind of find out not only what kind of stuff they need, but what sorts of services they might be more likely to respond to," Arbatman said. 

Muñoz Viso said he appreciates the opportunity to help others and spend time getting to know the people who come by the laundromat, whether someone is a regular or just swinging by for the first time.

"Most of the people we do laundry with, we know them, and we talk to them every week," Munoz said. "You ask them, 'Hey, how you doing?’ then you make some jokes with them. But I mean, that's normal. We're humans."

Àlex Muñoz Viso loads up laundry at a laundromat off Wells Ave. in Reno on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

David Tondreau heard about the laundry services from Muñoz Viso. Recently kicked out of his home after a 3-week hospital stint left him unable to pay his bills, Tondreau said the trip to the laundromat is now a constant in his schedule.

"I've been thinking about it all week," Tondreau said. "I really don't associate with too many people."

Arbatman and Zuckerman have lived in Reno for around six years. In that time, they've seen the cost of housing increase while social services have struggled to keep up. They think about how one hospital bill or rent increase can make the difference between living in a house or on the street.

"Doing this work, you meet a lot of different people in a lot of different positions," Arbatman said. "Rather than assuming they've screwed this up for themselves, assume that no, actually, they're capable of getting themselves to somewhere better, but where they are right now, without help, that might not realistically be possible. It's going to take much more than a 'can do' attitude."

Ilya Arbatman walks outside a laundromat off Wells Ave. in Reno on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)