For Kansas citizens who don’t have a place to wash their clothes, Free Laundry Wednesdays feel like a party | KCUR 89.3

It’s Wednesday. Gates Plaza Ultra Wash off Brooklyn Avenue is buzzing with self-service washers and dryers. And it is animated by a festive atmosphere.

People carry trash bags, duffel bags, tote bins, rolling luggage and backpacks. Some empty the washing machines. Others sort through piles of blankets, socks, pants and shirts. Some are seated in front of a plate of fried rice.

They are no ordinary customers and it is not the usual lunch hour.

Most of these people do not have permanent housing. They take advantage of a free laundry day offered by to restart.

Carlos Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

On Wednesday, David Murphy pulls his freshly washed laundry to a dryer at Gates Plaza Ultra Wash. Murphy called the opportunity to do free laundry a “godsend.”

“If you put on a clean pair of clothes, you at least feel a little better. Like a new man,” says David Murphy, 42.

Murphy is one of 40 people here on Wednesday.

“It washes all that negative out of you, man. It feels like a new day,” he says. “Even if it’s a bad day, it’s a new day.”

Murphy lives in his car. It broke down recently, but he got it working again, long enough to find a job. He says he has been homeless for almost two years. Just outside the bay windows, his pet pit bulls are tied to a bench outside – where they can keep an eye on him.

“It’s a godsend for me,” he says. “I had a trunk full of dirty clothes and dog blankets.”

Murphy says that for anyone who is homeless, finding a way to do laundry is a daunting task.

A silhouette inside a self-service laundromat shows a person walking between rows of stainless steel washing machines.

Carlos Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

A customer inside Gates Plaza Ultra Wash checks his clothes as some machines sit idle and many reStart customers finish their laundry day.

“I washed it wherever I could, maybe in a bathroom sink at a gas station or something,” he says.

ReStart COO Jonathan Lee Roberts says there’s no pressure on anyone to do anything or conform to expectations.

“This is kind of a rare opportunity to really engage with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in a way that’s really non-threatening,” he says.

Roberts watches the rows of washing machines and dryers as some people begin to filter out of the laundry room and into the street or a waiting restart minibus.

He says the organization will visit the various homeless camps and pick up anyone who wants to do their laundry. Others will find a ride or a walk.

A hand is seen handing a plate of fried rice to a person holding the plate.  Behind them are rows of washing machines.

Carlos Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

Carol Vlahos, right, hands a plate of fried rice with fortune cookies to a customer waiting for her clothes to be washed at Gate Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday.

“When we do street outreach and go to camps where people are staying, it can sometimes feel, I think, a bit threatening and overbearing,” he says.

ReStart invited anyone in need of laundry to attend the Wednesday noon sessions with no strings attached, Roberts says. But the organization extends an offer of help with all the services someone might need.

“If they want to talk to someone about housing or talk to someone about their current experience or to go to a doctor to connect with services and get off the streets,” he says, “then we are here to have this conversation with them.”

Carol Vlahos quickly goes from helping unload a truck to preparing a plate of fried rice to helping someone navigate the controls of a large, heavy-duty dryer.

“It’s my favorite time of the week,” she says. “These people are homeless. When you walk in here, you would never know.

A woman with purple and blue hair and wearing a green sweatshirt and red apron with purple and blue hair inserts a card into an industrial size clothes dryer inside a laundry business.

Carlos Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

ReStart social worker Carol Vlahos uses a swipe card to start a clothes dryer for a customer visiting Gates Plaza Ultra Wash on Wednesday.

The atmosphere, says Vlahos, is like a party.

ReStart social worker Vlahos started the program about four months ago. It is modeled after the one she raced in Seattle.

Vlahos says the constant rain in Seattle has created many medical conditions, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, for people who are homeless. She would see clothes lying around town, getting waterlogged, growing mold or mildew.

She says she’s seeing the results around northeast Kansas City.

“You don’t see any more clothes on the floor because now they can wash their clothes, not have to throw them away and go buy some or get more,” she says. “And pneumonia, bronchitis and everything is dropped because they come in clean sleeping bags and blankets.”

Her dyed blue and purple hair stands out against the swirl of people coming and going inside the laundry room. Additionally, she wears a green reStart sweatshirt and a red apron.

A man wearing a lime green safety vest and blue/black checkered pajama pants holds a belt while sorting laundry near a self-service washing machine.

Carlos Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

On Wednesday, Sage Mathews sorts his laundry while washing his clothes in Gates Plaza Ultra Wash. Mathews said having clean clothes makes a huge difference for homeless people as they navigate their world.

It’s useful because people constantly call it or stick their head over a washing machine, looking for it to insert the card that replaces the coins or bills they need to start a machine.

ReStart uses grant money to cover the cost of these free Laundry Wednesdays. Harvesters donates much of the food the ReStart chef uses to prepare hot meals. Harvesters also provide packed lunches and other snacks for everyone to take with them after washing their clothes.

This is the third time Sage Mathews, 56, has used the free laundry service.

He says something as simple as having clean clothes makes a huge difference in how people react to him as homeless.

“It’s sometimes difficult to have showers,” he says. “It is sometimes difficult to find places to do laundry. And if you don’t have either, you’re the smelly person on the bus and no one wants to sit near you and that’s not a good feeling.