Sirad Hir likes to take her time while she does the laundry. She walks about two blocks from her home to Laundry on the Fax on East Colfax and watches her clothes toss and turn in the washers and dryers while making friendly, idle conversation with Yemane Habtezgi, who owns the laundromat.
“I like coming here, it’s nice and (Yemane) is good and helpful, ” said Hir, 55, who moved to Aurora from Somalia seven years ago.“I feel peaceful sitting here and waiting (for my clothes).”
The peace that Laundry on the Fax with its giant, floor to ceiling windows that allow the sun to stream inside and its brand new, state-of the-art laundry machines and dryers quietly humming all day long, is felt by all kinds of people from the community who use the business at 10941 E. Colfax Ave. Especially people who carry all of their laundry with them everywhere they go — those who are always wearing the only clothes they own.
“Sometimes we as Americans can take things for granted,” said Habtezgi, a native of Eritrea. “Ten dollars of laundry money can change someone’s life. They can’t eat for very long off money like that, but for that amount, we can wash dry and treat all of their clothes.”
When Habtezgi opened the business four years ago, he noticed that there was a great need for a public laundromat, but there was also a great number of people unable to afford it.
“I see a lot of people in the area who are struggling, and very few of them have the money for soap.” he said. “And when I see people without soap or the money to dry, we do whatever we can to help.”
Habtezgi, who is also a landlord to retail properties around Aurora, started providing vouchers for laundry services practically as soon as he opened his doors. He reached out to local homelessness nonprofits along the Colfax corridor to have them bring their clients to him to get their clothes cleaned for free.
“It seems like a small part of your routine, but a clean wardrobe is essential for working and interacting with other people,” said Sarah Hamilton, executive director of the emergency homeless resource nonprofit Aurora Warms the Night. “When your budget for food is $5 a day, $7 for a load of laundry can be an obstacle. Our clients are grateful.”
It didn’t take long for Aurora to notice Habtezgi’s work as well.
City officials said they committed $3,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding in 2014 that paid for vouchers distributed in 2014 and 2015. Laundry on the Fax was also the recipient of one of Aurora’s Commercial Renovation Program grants and loans (approved in 2013) for the renovation of the building’s storefront.
To date, Habtezgi estimated that he has provided 3,000 vouchers for free laundry services. He recently invested in 80 brand new washers and dryers, doubling the amount of machines he had when he started out, as well as progressing interior remodeling.
“We all need a safe place to call home and for those who do not have access to those everyday things that we take for granted, like a washer and dryer, it can make life that much more difficult,” said James Gillespie, spokesperson for the Comitis Crisis Center. “Think of the school-aged kiddo who is going to class every day, but whose clothes might be soiled, re-used or wrinkled. Or the adult going to a job interview.
“Yemane sees beyond the clothing and considers the dignity and self-esteem of the individual.”
Comitis is working with Habtezgi to bring clients into the business for laundry services once a month. They they are also working to launch a job training and life skill development class in the facility.
“They can use my facility as a training space,” Habtezgi said. “They can learn how to be independent contractors. We are starting training for things like life skills in the next few weeks. They will learn cleaning skills, marketing skills, a lot of different things.”
He said he is also looking into partnerships with schools in the area, to provide vouchers to kids as rewards for good grades and attendance, as well as mobile laundromat services in partnership with Comitis’s street outreach teams.
“In the future, we would like to investigate the innovative concept of the mobile laundromat, as well as expanding the current laundry vouchering program,” Gillespie said.”We also have had discussions on installing a computer lab so that homeless individuals can search for jobs and other resources.”
For Habtezgi, providing a means for people to clean and dry their clothes started out as a public service that he felt compelled to do. As the business has grown, he is finding that it is the best way for him to make lifelong customers.
“Once their hiccup is over, once they get back on their feet, these people are my best customers,” he said. “One of the people I helped one time got a job, and she came in here the other day and cleaned the entire place. No one asked her to do it, she just showed up and started cleaning and thanking me. It’s like planting a seed and watching it grow.”
By MEGAN MITCHELL | firstname.lastname@example.org