It was described as ‘a world first’ by every major media outlet in Australia when it launched back in 2014, an idea created by Brisbane locals Nick Marchesi and Lucas Patchett when they were in their final year of high school. Orange Sky Laundry is the first free mobile laundry service for the homeless, and since that lightbulb moment they have revolutionised the way ordinary people help the homeless all over Australia.
Fast forward three years, and Orange Sky has 22 vans in operation around Australia, and over one thousand volunteers who wash and dry 7.2 tons of free laundry on a weekly basis. In late 2016, they also set up Orange Sky Showers, a mobile van that offers a hot, clean shower to people living on the street. The showers are an effort to prevent the difficulties that come with sleeping on the streets in the same clothes each night, such as bed bugs, mould, eczema and scabies.
Source: Orange Sky Laundry
How did two such young, otherwise typical teenagers come up with such an innovative idea for such a niche? Nick was a cameraman at Channel 7 before co-founding Orange Sky, and Lucas was fresh from a bachelor’s degree in engineering and commerce. On Australia Day in 2016, Marchesi and Patchett took to the stage in front of the whole country to jointly accept the Young Australian of the Year Award. They've earned the respect of CEOs, TV personalities and established philanthropists.
“Our eyes were really opened to the big culture of homelessness at a really young age, and when we left school we wanted a way for our friends to give back to the community, as well as help the homeless,” says Nick.
“Something we believe has been overlooked is access to simple things, such as clean clothes. So, we had the crazy idea to throw a washer and dryer into the back of a van, and go to them.”
Orange Sky’s vision began simple – the hope that they can continue finding ways to help people, whether it be washing and drying clothes or fostering conversation. “We just want to find ways to positively connect people who are homeless to their own communities,” says Nick.
And they aren’t simply focusing on the homeless meccas such as Sydney and Melbourne. Orange Sky vans run as far north as Darwin, and as far south as Hobart. And they’ve definitely soared on a global scale. Their legacy is spreading internationally, with Facebook pages cropping up in French, German, and even Indonesian. Something that started so small, in the back row of a classroom in Gregory Terrace, has snaked its way through the world, inspiring hundreds of like-minded people to start projects in their own communities. Orange Sky isn’t just a brand – it’s become a well-loved movement that Australia has embraced with pride.
Their latest endeavour to add to the family is Orange Sky Digital, a new project aiming to create even more of a community than just washing and drying clothes. Sponsored by Optus, the car has a screen and 30 orange foldout chairs. In their media campaigns, the boys accentuate on the pros of community involvement, an aspect that is just as important to them as the washing and drying.
Orange Sky’s mission
“What we feel for our homeless friends is that they’re disconnected from the community and that’s what we are trying to improve, and our vision is a world where people who are homeless are positively connected to the community,” says Nick.
“What we’re passionate about doing is breaking down the stereotypes around who is a homeless person and what can we best do to help them.”
That isn’t to say they weren’t treated with trepidation when first venturing out into the homeless community. “It’s a massive privilege to take someone’s only possessions and be trusted to wash and dry them,” says Nick. “But the really great thing is aside from the opportunity to get their clothes cleaned, there’s the potential to sit down and have a chat, and through that a certain kind of trust is formed.”
That perception is strengthened every day, by meeting people who never take the simple things in life for granted. “I think we have a lot to learn from them, because we already have what they dream of – a home.”
As a registered charity, Orange Sky reported a profit of $1.16 million in the 2015-16 financial year. "Any money we make is reinvested into our charity," Lucas says.
Orange Sky operates on three main income sources: donations (dubbed ‘Mum and Dad’ donations), sponsors, and donors. They are expanding at a rapid pace, but Kelly Wishart, Orange Sky’s Communications Officer, says they have budgeted to coincide with van expansions and other organisational growth. “We ensure we raise enough money for a van before it’s launch so we don’t overstretch ourselves,” she says. “We have over 1000 volunteers nationwide who commit time to us – and that number is growing.”
There’s a mild stirring that the aim of Orange Sky isn’t sustainable by relying on the philanthropy of individuals and major companies. But in the age of corporate social responsibility, perhaps it’s the best time for Orange Sky’s concept to boom.
“Orange Sky has been overwhelmed with response, not only from Australian’s but from people all over the world,’ says Kelly. “Our marketing campaigns aim to spread awareness of both Orange Sky and homelessness, and encourage involvement from volunteering and donations.
“We’re restoring dignity and positively connecting communities, filling a gap in the community where there is one in the community,” says Kelly. “Having access to showers and clean clothes means someone can attend a job interview, feel comfortable using public transport, and it restores dignity.
“We’re also providing a connection to the community through conversation.”
Source: Orange Sky Laundry
However, there are still skeptics among not-for-profit communities. Some have voiced concerns Orange Sky isn’t sustainable long term, and is too dependent on sponsorship and donations. Others say Orange Sky isn’t doing enough to prevent the ongoing issue of homelessness in Australia, and perhaps the funding could be better used towards breaking the cycle of homelessness. There are also claims Orange Sky is undermining the dignity of people who are homeless.
When he spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald Dr. Cameron Parsell, a senior researcher at the University of Queensland's Institute of Social Science Research, said services such as mobile laundry and shower facilities undermined the dignity of people who are homeless.
"Not only is it ineffective, it really undermines any dignity person may feel having to shower and wash in public spaces, particularly when we know ending their homelessness is possible and cost-effective," he said.
Likewise, acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons Kate Colvin agrees safer community housing would keep the homeless population from resorting to decrepit options such as caravan parks and squatting.
"Philanthropists and organisations need to consider where to channel their energy and funding," she said. "And the reality is that ending homelessness starts with boosting affordable housing, not providing comfort measures.”
It raises the debate that while we shouldn’t be criticising other people’s good intentions, - according to 2016 statistics, one in 200 Australians are homeless on any given night - we should also be looking for a method to end the cycle of homelessness rather than service it.
Source: Orange Sky
However, the Brisbane-based duo are the first to admit they are no statistical experts on the social matter of homelessness. They rely on their friends on the street for advice. "Lucas and I are two young blokes who are volunteers and by no means are we experts in the homelessness sector."
Could Orange Sky potentially use their donations to something that can be more proactive in ending the cycle of homelessness? “We are constantly working to expand our Training and Employment program to provide more employment opportunities to friends on the street. There are many reasons that someone may become, or choose to be homeless.” They have also recently launched a training and employment program, where they employ people from the street to co-ordinate commercial washing contracts.
So what are the long-term goals for Orange Sky? “We are looking to expand internationally and look to provide the service to as many as people as possible, while ensuring we are sustainable in this endeavour. We will provide more training and employment opportunities,” says Kelly.
“There is no one solution to homelessness, because there is no one cause.”
Learn more about Orange Sky Laundry here.