The Way Back To Self-Confidence
The Way Back To Self-Confidence
Four young Greeks and their mobile laundromat Ithaca Laundry are providing the Athens homeless with clean clothes and strengthening their self-confidence. An interview.
Mr. Spiliopoulos, what does the island of Ithaca, Ulysses’ mythological homeland, have to do with your project?
Our activity is meant to support people without a permanent home in finding the way back to their personal Ithaca. When one no longer has a safe place to sleep and is obliged to eat at soup kitchens, thereby inevitably neglecting one’s personal hygiene, this is very detrimental to self-confidence. We thought these people should be given a better chance to gain social acceptance, and in this respect clean clothing and a well-groomed appearance can make all the difference.
You need to know that laundromats are actually not at all common here in Greece. The tradition is that families always ultimately take responsibility for their members’ personal hygiene. Even students who manage to find an inexpensive apartment somewhere are always provided with a washing machine by their parents, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, even in times of economic crisis. But many of the homeless moved to Athens from provincial Greece when the economy was still growing, because there were better jobs to be had in the capital city, and now that the crisis has hit and they have become unemployed, their families are in an entirely different part of the country.
How many people are living like this at present?
According to the most recent survey carried out in 2015, there are 17,700 persons in Athens who do not have a permanent place of residence or live in temporary housing; this includes people living in apartments without electricity as well as those who have been provisionally taken in by friends or have sought shelter in automobiles. Of these 17,700 individuals, approximately 1500 sleep outdoors on the street. When resorting to this kind of accommodation, there is practically no way to stay clean and take care of one’s appearance.
How does the Ithaca Laundry team operate?
Based on a schedule, a minibus containing two washing machines and dryers is parked at specific locations in Athens where homeless persons can have their clothing laundered and dried free of charge.
In late 2015, we purchased a small bus and then proceeded to buy the necessary appliances at the beginning of 2016. Setting up the technical equipment was not simple: feed and discharge pipes had to be installed, as well as insulation and electrical switchboards, and then there was also the lighting – exactly the same electrical work you would need to do in your own home, were you to install a washer and dryer in your bathroom. Therefore, our bus spent the entire month of February 2016 at an auto repair shop. At the same time, we approached the municipality of Athens and applied for approval to operate at the locations we had selected, to connect to the municipal water system and above all to the sewage system, since waste water can only be disposed of in certain places. Taking care of these formalities in addition to the technical requirements was very time-consuming.
At the beginning of April we were finally able to get started: at the municipal support hotspot at Athens central railway station and at the traditional Varvakeio market on Athinas street. To date we have been doing up to five loads of laundry of up to seven kilograms each, twice a week. It takes two hours until the clothing can be returned to its owners, clean and ready to wear.
We rely on volunteers: ten to twelve persons who agree to work for us once per week, or once per month for a total of six hours per shift.
What were the initial reactions to Ithaca Laundry?
We didn’t publicize our initiative much at first, since we hoped to be gradually accepted by our target group. During the first two weeks approximately 60 kilograms of laundry were washed, for individuals, men and women, but also for families with children who live in apartments without electricity. Our first beneficiary, who had not worn clean clothes for quite some time when he first came to us, now visits us every Tuesday and even has coffee with us while he is waiting.
Are you planning to expand your activities?
Yes, even though there is still much to be resolved before we do so. For instance, we are thinking of going to the second largest city in Greece, Thessaloniki, or of offering our service to refugees and immigrants. The latter is an enormous group of people who, up to now, were constantly on the road. In the mean time, this may have changed. Our initial target group, although homeless, was not particularly mobile. These people usually stick to one and the same, “usual” place. Should refugees ultimately establish themselves for a longer period of time somewhere in Greece, they would definitely be a potential target group for us. Camps or hotspots where there are no facilities for washing clothes or linens are indeed a very appropriate setting for our initiative.
What is your personal motivation?
To me this is an opportunity to apply in practice what I learned at university, to build something and present it to others, while at the same time responding to societal need. My idea is that at some point someone might be able to make a living off this, to earn a salary and pay social security contributions. In the medium term, we hope that this will allow former homeless persons to find their way back into gainful employment and manage to make ends meet.
Ithaca Laundry’s Business Model
The driving force behind Ithaca Laundry is the model of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The project has been set up as a civil law entity, which can pay salaries, accept donations and engage in commerce but is non-profit.
Thanks to an initial grant from the Angelopoulos-Clinton program, donations from washing machine and detergent manufacturers, as well as support from the Athens Incubator network Impact Hub, Ithaca Laundry was able to begin operating in April of 2016. Its team of four is on the lookout for long-term sponsors and partners. For the time being, Ithaca Laundry is not yet generating own revenue.