Love, and laundry: Ministries offer hospitality to homeless guests

A volunteer helps a client load her washing machine at the Venice Beach Laundry Love on the last Monday in January.

A volunteer helps a client load her washing machine at the Venice Beach Laundry Love on the last Monday in January.

[Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles] There’s an exciting ministry washing over the Episcopal church in the Diocese of Los Angeles; it’s called Laundry Love and it brings together congregations and homeless guests over hospitality and laundry.

The line begins to form about 5 p.m. outside the Beach Coin Laundry in Huntington Beach, on the second Wednesday of each month.

And it keeps growing — with homeless men and women, the working poor, those on fixed incomes, or just plain down on their luck, single moms and their children — guests who welcome Laundry Love Huntington Beach as much for the community as the clean clothes.

Giovana, a single mother, accompanied by two of her four children, said her January visit was the first time she had participated in Laundry Love. She drove around the block several times before working up the nerve to park and approach the line.

About 7 p.m., before the laundry actually begins, she and other guests are invited inside, first come, first served, where they receive several bags of groceries, and her children — Kayla, 6, and José, 3 — receive crayons and coloring books.

“A friend of mine told me about this last month, but I just couldn’t believe it was for real,” Giovana says. “Even tonight, I didn’t bring all my dirty clothes; I started not to stop, started not to come in at all, but then I just decided to take a chance.”

Offering a chance for clean clothing is just one aspect of Laundry Love’s mission; the rest is community, health and wellness, according to Steve Bruce, who is married to Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Bruce.

He, along with Christian and Shannon Kassoff, and another couple, Matt and Connie Martin, organized the ministry two years ago. It began as an outreach of thom’s, an emerging ministry that grew from St. Wilfrid of York, Huntington Beach and St. John’s, Rancho Santa Margarita and is dedicated to service.

“When we first started forming thom’s, we said for sure we wanted to have some sort of community presence, community outreach … and this just seemed the right fit,” Bruce said. He serves as a kind of “hospitality ambassador” inviting all sorts of groups — church and otherwise — to support the ministry through volunteering and donation.

“I tell them that this is what Jesus was inviting us to do, to get out of our churches and into the community and to get to know the community and help your neighborhood,” he said. “For me it’s a personal transformation to sit down and listen to the stories of the homeless and the working poor, those who are disabled. For me, the Holy Spirit always shows up and it just feels like a great thing for me to do.”

Healthier eating, healthier living
This particular evening, Jan. 8, begins and ends with food — groceries purchased by Laundry Love from the Second Harvest Food Bank are distributed to guests before the laundry starts — and a hot meal is offered once the washers and dryers are spinning.

Groceries are sorted by category — canned goods, boxed pastas, pancake flour and syrup and other items for guests with access to stoves and refrigerators, who can prepare their own meals — and ready-to-eat food for those living in vehicles or on the streets.

Volunteers from local churches and faith institutions bag and distribute the groceries at Shannon Kassoff’s invitation. “I’ll bring people in one at a time,” she tells volunteers.

“Sometimes they have large families and I’ll tell you how many bags to give them. If they are a family of seven, they’re welcome to have seven bags. OK, I’m going to start bringing people in.”

Next up is the laundry orientation for volunteers, like Tracy Heffelman, also a first-timer. She was attending a Surf City Rotary meeting earlier that day where the Kassoffs made a presentation about a separate heartfelt endeavor — completion of a seven-classroom, 320-student school they helped build in the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

“They were talking about an upcoming trip to Tanzania and then at the end, they mentioned Laundry Love,” Heffelman said. “I said, ‘this is awesome’. I live nearby, I want to help out, so here I am.”

Others, like Salim Majeed and several members of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, are here to observe the operation and replicate it in their own neighborhood.

“This is a good cause and we want to give back to the community,” Majeed said. “We feel obligated to be part of what’s going on,” he said.

‘Clean clothes and conversation’
One of Damian Kassoff’s responsibilities tonight is to be “the quarter person.”

“I make the change on the change machine,” explains Kassoff, 13. “I make the change, put it in the bag. When my mother assigns positions I give quarters to the people who wait for someone to do their load, depending on how many quarters there are.

“My job is doing this and talking to people and putting music on.” It is David Bowie’s birthday, he adds, and also Elvis Presley’s. In tribute, throughout the evening the sounds of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Presley’s “All Shook Up” and “Burning Love” fill in the gaps around the conversations.

Everyone is expected to talk with the guests, Shannon Kassoff tells the volunteers who include members of the outreach ministry from St. George’s, Laguna Hills, and the youth group from the Church of the Messiah, Santa Ana and elsewhere.

“This month marks Laundry Love’s second year,” she begins, amid applause. “We cannot do it without your help. Laundry Love is an opportunity for people to come and get some clean clothes but more than that, to just be in community. A lot of people who come have been coming here for two years so we know them well.

“It’s not the task, it’s about hanging out and talking to them. Cool, let’s get started.”

The Kassoffs live near the laundromat, according to Christian, 44, a full-time information technology manager, who supervises 14 employees in a family-owned business. When they aren’t engaged in outreach work, Shannon serves as a yoga instructor, he says. He also is the diocesan representative for Episcopal Relief & Development and a member of the diocesan Program Group on Global Partnerships.

They will also be leading, along with the Rev. Julie Bryant of Transfiguration, Arcadia, an educational/information trip to El Salvador from Aug. 1-8 this year, he said.

Christian serves as the “outside guy” keeping track of the line while Shannon supervises volunteers inside. The Martins have typically cooked and served up the hot meals.

Inside, Shannon assigns tasks based on availability: those who need to leave earlier, help with the wash. Those who are available until about 10 p.m. are on dryer duty.

While passing out quarters, post-it notes, dryer fabric softener sheets and laundry soap, she offers further instructions and a few reminders borne of experience: “Make sure the door is locked and latched, otherwise it’ll all come spilling out.”

The sticky notes are to keep track of who’s using which machine. “When I bring people in, I will introduce you by name, you’ll have a sticky note, put their name on it and put it on their machine.”

And, always ask first.

“Ask them if they want us to use our soap,” she continues. “Sometimes they have their own, because they may have allergies or sensitivities. Hang onto quarters; you’re putting the quarters in for them and keeping track of them.”

Says Christian: “For the dryers you’re going to start with two quarters and ask them if they want a dryer sheet. Once it stops, have them check the load and if we need to put more quarters in, we will. Talk to Shannon for anything extra. Let her know before you run out of quarters.”

Steve Bruce offers an opening prayer, and other words of respectful wisdom. “Ask,” he says, “always ask people if they want help to take their clothes out.”

Shannon agrees. “Yes, we are helping them, but they are essentially doing their own laundry and some people are particular about their things being touched. Ask, ‘can I help you fold these items or take them out?’ Most of the time, they want help.”

Volunteers wear name tags; T-shirts are available for sale. There is a Facebook page, and Laundry Love Huntington Beach has already helped launch a similar venture in Venice Beach and is consulting on additional ones, in Silver Lake and Garden Grove and elsewhere.

Volunteers Angelo of Thad’s, left, and Christian Kassoff of Thom's chat with a guest at the Venice Beach Laundry Love as volunteer Steve Bruce, center, stands ready to supply other clients with detergent.

Volunteers Angelo of thad’s, left, and Christian Kassoff of thom’s chat with a guest at the Venice Beach Laundry Love as volunteer Steve Bruce, center, stands ready to supply other clients with detergent.

A ‘slightly chaotic’ movement, in Venice Beach
Scott Claassen calls Laundry Love Venice Beach, a ministry of thad’s, “slightly chaotic … but it allows folks to get to know one another and to share the experience of ‘I’m doing something I’m not in complete control of and I’m really putting myself out there’.”

thad’s grew out of the Rev. Jimmy Bartz’s ministry at All Saints, Beverly Hills in 2006 and has occupied numerous locations, before settling on the current one, the Writer’s Boot Camp at Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.

After a volunteer night at Laundry Love Huntington Beach last summer, Claassen, a thad’s lay associate pastor said: “our community fell in love with it and we said, ‘look, why aren’t we doing this?’”

There were a few bumps along the way — the first Laundromat that agreed to work with them “decided they did not want to bring the greater homeless population there,” Claassen said. But they found another location “and we end up packing the Laundromat on a night they wouldn’t have much business. It works out well.”

They average around 30 volunteers and 70 guests when they gather on the last Monday evenings of the month, he said. The evening begins at 7 p.m. and ends about 10 p.m. They provide a simple meal but no groceries, at least not yet, he said.

Laundry Love began about 10 years ago in Ventura County and has since expanded across the nation, to more than 100 such ministries, according to the Kassoffs. While the ministry has a very practical side, of helping people get clean clothes, it also “opens people up to an experience of God’s love in our lives,” Claassen said.

“The majority of the folks are homeless or living in shelters and most of them are on the streets but, definitely, we have some folks that have jobs. In fact, we ordered pizza and the pizza deliveryman was somebody who had been a guest the prior time.

“He was so excited. He came in and was serving the pizza up with everyone, he was very grateful.”

He added that: “We are doing laundry for people and it’s helping them alleviate their economic pressures. We’re also providing an area where people from our community and from thad’s community and the greater Venice population can interact in a safe and engaging environment. To me, that’s where the real gold is—the emphasis is on love, not laundry.”

He added: “I want to emphasize what a privilege it is to do this every month and how much it has meant for the thad’s community. We’ve really grown from being able to step out and talk with folks and engage the community in that way. We’ve had folks from Laundry Love show up at thad’s. It has enriched our community to put ourselves out there and to be willing to change.”

Jesse, 43, a blues singer and electric guitar player who lives in his van, says his music mirrors his life: “It’s about destruction, chaos.”

The pony-tailed former concrete and metal trades worker hums and plays recorded renditions of his music while waiting for his wash to finish. He has never fully recovered from on-the-job injuries and now “I’m completely broke,” he says.

Laundry Love is a bright spot in what has been, for him, a whole lot of darkness. “I have severe allergies. If my clothes get dusty, I break out in painful rashes. This helps me. I have medical problems, problems people don’t understand. I experience chronic pain; I only sleep about two to three hours a night, because of muscle spasms. It makes your blues become deeper. I feel ready to die at 43.”

For Kat, who lives in the neighborhood and is on a fixed income, Laundry Love makes the difference when she runs short before the end of the month. It helps with prescription medication, and those little extras, like buying her dad a birthday gift this month.

“It is so uplifting for me to be here,” she said. “It’s so encouraging. I feel less strife in my life.”

LuzAna Figueroa said it was important for the Church of the Messiah’s @youth group to participate in Laundry Love.

“We wanted to show them that they can be the change in the community we’d all like to see,” she said. “If you don’t teach kids, if you don’t expose the to compassion, then those core values get lost in the mix.”

One of the students, Jesus agreed. “I enjoy helping people out,” he said. “This is not half-hearted. It’s hands on. You get to interact with everyone. You get a sense of how this is helping someone. It’s an awesome program.”

Meanwhile, Troy, 49, goes to the barbershop next door for a much-needed haircut. The barber cuts children’s hair for free; Laundry Love pays $8 for adult haircuts. “It helps me out a lot,” he said of Laundry Love. “I really like it.”

Shannon Kassoff said it takes about $500 to pull off one Laundry Love event; about 15 volunteers are needed for an average of about 70 guests, she said. The ministry survives through T-shirt sales, and donations, of money, laundry products, and the hot meals, usually cooked by Matthew Martin.

Tonight, dinner is chicken, rolls and salad and Shannon offers volunteers another word of wisdom: “We’re going to have dinner as soon as we get all the washing machines full. So, if you didn’t get a particular job, it would be helpful if you could go out and help serve dinner.

“The other thing, if you don’t have a job you can go outside and hang out with the guests. That’s what it’s all about. That’s where it’s happening.”

Comments

  1. The Rev. Margaret Moore says:

    What a fabulous ministry! It is my experience with homeless folk, other out-of -luck people, and the elderly or sick at home that LAUNDRY presents one of the greatest, generally ignored problems. Few public services help with laundry. THIS is a ministry consistent with the gospel mandate. I can visually see that problem when on the street or visiting for pastoral care, but just like most people I’m reluctant to personally touch laundry that might seem too dirty: But we have been gifted by the Divine with gloves! This may not be the final frontier for Christian ministry, but not many have gone there before. Good for you!
    Peggy Moore+

  2. Rev. Mike Bell says:

    Immediately I want to help get something going like this in my small town in northern Michigan. We don’t have the homeless or street people, but we have no shortage of the poor.

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