Volunteers raising funds for homeless-run laundromat

News by
Alice Walker

For many of those at the St. James Drop-In Centre on St. Catherine Street, finding a job in Montreal is not easy.  A new laundromat, however, could make a difference.

Inspired by a similar project in downtown Toronto, some of the administrators of the centre are looking to open a small commercial laundromat downtown, which would employ both people from the Centre and other homeless Montrealers. The laundromat, called “Street Suds,” would set up contracts with local businesses, including restaurants and hotels, to pick up, wash, fold, and deliver their laundry.

Danica Straith, an employee at the Centre and McGill alumna, said that while many of the people who visit the Centre—most of whom are men—are eager to work, it is often difficult for them to get hired or retain a job.

“If you’re schizophrenic, homeless, if you have addiction problems, or if you’re paranoid, which comes a lot with living on the street,” she said, “that makes it very difficult to work a job in a kitchen or as a janitor.”

The laundromat, in contrast, would hire the homeless on a one-year contract and would help them to learn to function in a workplace environment as well as build the basic skills necessary for keeping a job.

“The idea is to have a really supportive workplace where we can help people build their communication skills and help them develop a schedule and time management,” said Alain Spitzer, director of the Centre. While the Centre has a program called INTERAGIR, in which members are hired to work as support staff, the demand for jobs far exceeds the supply.

Spitzer, Straith, and others from the Centre first started fundraising for the Street Suds project during the summer. While some donors have committed, they will not fully fund until the Centre can raise more elsewhere.

The leaders of the project recently competed in the Aviva Community Fund Contest, a competition where people vote for the idea they believe will be most beneficial to its community. The winning groups receive a funding grant. Street Suds placed 31st during the first round of voting, missing the cutoff by one. Spitzer, however, is confident that the group will be able to reach their $100,000 startup budget through other means.

“We’ve been working on a lot of other proposals,” he said, “We already have some seed money from a foundation that really believes in us, but it’s not enough.”

The Montreal organizers have also had numerous meetings with members of the Toronto Gateway Salvation Army, who started a similar initiative that has been extremely successful. Gateway Linens, as the venture is named, has obtained contracts with numerous hotels and other businesses in the city.

“I was in Toronto and bumped into a friend who’s been running a similar laundry program,” said Spitzer. “Gateway Linens has some huge contracts and is very successful, so we’re hopeful that our project will succeed as well.”

Straith is hopeful that Montreal businesses will be as eager to sign on as those in Toronto.

“Due to social responsibility, a lot of businesses want to get involved with the community,” she said, “This is a really practical way of helping our community.”

Spitzer echoed the sentiment.

“Everyone’s behind us on this. Now it’s just a question of making sure we get the seed money to make it all come together,” he said.

More importantly, however, according to Straith, is the impact the project could have on the people who work there.

“I know a lot of guys here feel like their lives are a dead end when they can’t find a job,” she said. “We’re looking forward to helping people get out of the basic need environment we’re providing now so they can work their way into something that’s more than that.”