Impact Journalism Day 2016

Homeless Athenians Hail Their Beautiful Launderette

The Ithaca Laundry is taking homeless people’s clothes for a spin, using a modified van containing washing machines and dryers.

Ithaca Laundry founders Thanos Spiliopoulos (left) and Fanis Tsonas with their specially modified van.
Kostas Katsigiannis

A mobile launderette made its first appearance on the streets of Athens earlier this year, offering homeless people the opportunity to get their clothes washed and dried, and feel a little nicer. And with an estimated 20,000 people now sleeping rough on the streets of the Greek capital – many of them between the ages of 26 and 45 – the Ithaca Laundry is sure to be in demand.

The brains behind this innovative idea – which aims to help the homeless improve their self-esteem and increase their dignity – is a team of young scientists led by Athens graduates Thanos Spiliopoulos and Fanis Tsonas.

The launderette is basically a van in which two washing machines and dryers have been installed. The team named their creation “Ithaca” because they hope that through their actions, the homeless will rediscover their own sense of discovery and fulfillment (like the mythological hero Odysseus).

“Cleanliness leads to dignity and this, in turn, leads to new opportunities,” is the motto of the nonprofit the duo created to realize their project.

“When a homeless person can wash their clothes and be clean, they automatically feel better. First of all, you make their daily life better,” says Spiliopoulos, 23, a management science and technology graduate from Athens University.

Spiliopoulos was the initiator of the Ithaca Laundry and is the person responsible for organizational issues. “By providing the homeless with the opportunity to have clean clothes, we give them a psychological boost to enter society,” adds cofounder Tsonas, also 23 and a chemical engineering graduate; he’s responsible for the launderette’s technical aspects.

Scholarships and smiles

I met the two graduates a few days after the mobile launderette’s first outing in Athens this winter, and their enthusiasm was evident for all to see.

“We had been waiting eagerly for this day,” says Tsonas. Spiliopoulos, meanwhile, is both satisfied and restrained when I ask him about homeless men and women’s first reactions to the appearance of the Ithaca Laundry. “It’s not that we’re providing them with a home, but it’s definitely nice to give them the opportunity to wash their clothes and at the same time offer them a cup of coffee,” he says.

As they explain their idea to me, the two men simultaneously perform a last-minute check on the washing machines and the van’s equipment ahead of another outing that evening for the Ithaca Laundry.

Spiliopoulos says he came up with the idea after reading about similar setups operating in San Francisco and Australia. “At the same time, I could see that there was a big problem with the homeless in Greece – and so the idea to create a [mobile] launderette in Athens was born,” he says.

The cleanliness and smiles the mobile launderette has been offering to the homeless this year did not happen overnight. As Spiliopoulos and Tsonas explain, a lot of hard work and perseverance was required, while scholarships and grants provided considerable financial impetus.

At the end of 2014, they received a scholarship from the Angelopoulos-Clinton GIU Fellowship program for 10,000 euros ($11,200). “This funding helped us in the beginning and gave us a psychological boost for the future,” recalls Spiliopoulos.

The team was also starting to take shape at this time. Tsonas signed up, as did graphic designer Andili Rachouti; she’s responsible for designing the logo and the launderette’s branding.

Nowadays, the Ithaca Laundry has a team of five people.

The launderette was set up as a nonprofit, and the all-important van was purchased last summer. “It was a used van. It took a lot of work to modify it to its present form,” admits Spiliopoulos.

The group adds that significant support for the project was provided by a grant from the Impact Hub Athens network, while the electrical equipment was provided by LG.

Suitable places

Last fall, the team began to look for suitable places in Athens frequented by the homeless, or where the homeless passed by, where they could station the mobile launderette. They also contacted the local municipality looking for suggestions.

Ithaca Laundry’s goal is to establish regular operations on specific days and in specific places, and to gradually increase the launderette’s visibility. The activity is also being performed with the aid of a group of volunteers: “Seven or eight people have already been mobilized, while we have received around 40 applications from other people who want to help voluntarily,” the organization says.

Volunteers will help the homeless with the collection of their clothes, transferring them from the washing machines to the dryers, and then returning them to the homeless.

And how does it all work? Well, it’s a simple process: First, the team and volunteers establish contact with the homeless and collect clothes from them. The clothes are then washed in the van’s washing machines, dried and returned to the individuals. The whole process takes about two hours. The water supply comes from nearby parks or other points in the municipality where the van is stationed.

This article first appeared in Greek daily Ta Nea.