It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday, and the operations of Wash Street in Manchester cease for the day. Employees leave, and a new crowd slowly starts to arrive.
Some walk a few blocks from the city’s shelters or where they park their cars, carrying their clothes in plastic bags. The people who live further, under bridges or in the woods, use shopping carts and old suitcases they’ve found to bring in their laundry.
The owner, Kristyn Van Ostern, keeps her business doors open after hours for unhoused people who have no place to wash their clothes or can’t afford it.
The space provides a basic service that may be taken for granted. Since last fall, Van Ostern says the idea of offering laundry nights, or “Loads of Love,” came from her employees who recognized the need in their community.
She says allowing people to come wasn’t a strain.
“The washers could be running at that time, but they are not, and they wanted to help their neighbors,” she said.
Some people use the free laundry nights to check on friends and see if they are doing alright. Anna Royce and Andrew Mcaniroin often catch up on these nights, and say they love the food the volunteers provide and the company of friends.
Anna is living in her car with her son. She says it is getting difficult for her to park during the night as the police move her constantly. As she pulls clothes out of the drying machine, warm and smelling nice, she says this makes her feel “heavenly.”
On this evening, Dean Chambers leaves the laundromat with a suitcase full of clean clothes; it took him a few loads, but he is thankful he didn’t have to pay for the washing, since he can’t afford it.
Chambers and his wife Tammy, as well as his dog and two cats, lost their home during the pandemic. In July, Tammy began staying at a women's shelter in the city while Chambers slept under a bridge. Separated from each other, he says the distance has put a strain between them, but they “keep it fresh,” loving each other unconditionally.
“And we have a sense of humor,” Tammy adds.
Van Ostern says the laundromat is providing members of Manchester's unhoused community with a basic human right: adequate, clean clothing. Many people at the laundromat say they have to throw away the donated clothes they get at shelters because they don’t have a place to wash them. Some also reported the washing machines at some of the city’s shelters are broken.
But “Loads of Love” also provides some hours of stress relief and the feeling that someone cares. It may not bring any revenue to the business owner, but Van Ostern says, “it’s incredibly heartwarming.”
While the washing and drying machines run at full speed, Dam Wright, an advocate who does outreach to Manchester’s unhoused community, makes sure everyone has what they need, from coins to free detergent. He says around 70 unhoused people use the laundromat twice a week.
Wright hopes more business owners would open their doors to help Manchester's unhoused residents feel like they deserve good things and show that there are people who want to see them succeed.
“Maybe a shower night at the gym, or perhaps a meal night at a restaurant,” he proposed.
Between January and December 2021, Manchester recorded 1,714 homeless individuals, with 239 chronically homeless, according to the N.H. Coalition to End Homelessness. Recently, the city said it's looking for advice that could lead them to provide more affordable housing through a partnership with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The coalition will also help introduce best practices to gather data on how many people have obtained permanent or transitional housing in recent years.
Still, despite the adversity, people’s spirits at the laundromat are high, as many talk about resilience and camaraderie. Beyond what can be a cliché, many said, “We are like a family.”
Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member.
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio.