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Grant Whittington headshot

Pope Francis Opens Laundromat to Serve the Homeless for Free


Six washers and dryers lining a creamsicle-colored wall in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood exemplify Pope Francis’ sweeping efforts to alleviate homelessness. The pope, who’s the namesake for the new Pope Francis Laundry, sponsored the creation of a laundromat to service the city’s homeless free of charge.

The laundromat is the newest addition to the San Gallicano center run by the Sant’Egidio community. For more than 10 years, the center has offered showers, clothes, medical assistance and food to the homeless, Crux Now reported. 

Whirlpool donated the dozen laundry machines, while Procter and Gamble supply the detergent. Procter and Gamble’s commitment to helping the homeless in Rome began in 2015 when the company donated free shaving cream and razors to barbershops as part of an initiative to give the homeless free haircuts and shaves.

It’s easy to limit the scope of what the homeless need to categories like food, water and shelter, but their needs are much broader than that. The Vatican isn’t the first place to think about providing free laundry service to those struggling to afford it. In the United States, the nonprofit Laundry Loves pairs the homeless with volunteers who pair for a load in exchange for a conversation. Since its creation 14 years ago, Laundry Love has cycled through a million loads of laundry.

Laundry is a drive for change in Australia as well, where the nonprofit Orange Sky Laundry offers to do free loads of laundry out of its 11 operating vans equipped with a washer and dryer.

But the needs of the homeless extend well beyond a fresh outfit. Austin, Texas’ effort to curb homelessness began with the idea of creating truly affordable housing. Alan Graham, the CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, spearheaded the project to bring the chronically homeless of Austin into 135 tiny homes plotted in a 27-acre lot. The village features a medical center, amphitheater, wood workshop, chapel, market and communal garden. Rent starts at $220 for the 12-feet-by-12-feet homes.

A recent University of Texas study estimated that Texas taxpayers pay, on average, $14,480 a year for each homeless individual. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A 2016 study from the journal Science found that a single cash payment of $1,000 may be enough to keep the homeless off the street for two years. The study found that if you give a one-time cash infusion to people who can prove that they can sustainably afford rent in future months, the likelihood that they become homeless is notably lower.

This study, if drawn into policy, would not only save those on the verge of entering into homelessness, but also reduce the financial burden on local taxpayers.

The way politicians and lawmakers in different states and municipalities approach homelessness demonstrate the issue's complexity. Some cities, like Lincoln, Nebraska; Santa Barbara, California; and Newark, New Jersey, simply made panhandling illegal in order to clean up their streets. Others, like Albuquerque, New Mexico, offer the homeless a chance to earn $9 an hour by helping out with the city’s cleanup projects. The program employs 10 people per shift and gives them a chance to earn money to sustain themselves.

Portland, Oregon, is another city aiming to alleviate homelessness. The progressive city known for artsy donuts and big bookstores passed an ordinance last year that requires companies to pay an additional 10 percent tax if their CEO earns more than 100 times the salary than that of the lowest employee. And where would this surplus tax go? The city is fighting for the funds to go toward curbing homelessness.

Portland estimates an additional $2.5 million and $3.5 million in revenue from the tax. So the Portland ordinance not only narrows income inequality, but also has a chance to help the homeless.

All over the country -- and the world, as we see in Pope Francis’ laundromat -- lawmakers, companies, and nonprofits are trying to minimize poverty and keep people off the streets. This investment in programs for the homeless is a win-win for both people and municipalities. The fact is that homelessness persists far and wide -- despite those clean clothes, a $1,000 one-time payment or a three-hour, $27 shift cleaning the city. But it’s nice to see businessmen, lawmakers and religious leaders doing their part.  

Image credit: Long Thiên/Flickr

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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