​Orange Sky thinking: Aussies helping the homeless, one wash at a time

Orange Sky Laundry started with two Aussie guys washing clothes for the homeless out of the back of a van. But after doing 68,000kg of laundry, they say it's not really about the machines.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
6 min read

Two years ago, Nicholas Marchesi and Lucas Patchett realised that for Australians experiencing homelessness, clean clothes are a privilege often out of reach. And they decided to do something about it.

They got a van, gutted the interior and bolted a washing machine and dryer inside. Before long, they were driving the world's first and only mobile laundry van around Brisbane, on Australia's east coast, and washing and drying clothes for people sleeping rough.

It was just two guys and one van. But Orange Sky Laundry was born.

Since those early days, Orange Sky Laundry has grown from one custom-built van, known as "Suddsy," into a fleet of 12 vans operated by a team of 622 volunteers across Australia, washing and drying 7.2 tonnes of free laundry every week. Around 1 out of every 200 people in the country are homeless.

On January 26, 2016 -- Australia Day -- Marchesi and Patchett took to the stage in front of the whole country to jointly accept the Young Australian of the Year Award. They've garnered the respect of CEOs, TV personalities and established philanthropists, all for putting laundry on wheels.

But as these guys have been saying from day one, it's not about the washing.

'We definitely broke those machines'

After working with homelessness charities in high school, Marchesi says he and Patchett saw a very basic need that was being overlooked: hygiene.

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Paul, a regular visitor to Orange Sky Laundry.

Orange Sky Laundry

Sleeping rough in the same clothes everyday leads to bed bugs, mould and diseases like scabies -- not to mention the mental health strain that comes with constantly being damp or dirty. But what if two blokes could jury-rig a van to carry a washer and dryer to where these people needed it most, out on the street?

"Everyone told us it wouldn't work," says Marchesi. "We had laundry manufacturers saying, 'We can't get that to work, and no one will want to wash and dry their clothes in a park.' And we said, 'No one's ever given it a crack... we want to give it a go. So we did."

The pair couldn't afford commercial equipment, so they convinced a local laundry service company to donate the machines. The company was convinced the machines wouldn't travel, but Marchesi and Patchett were determined.

"We put the first van, Suddsy, together [on a weekend]," Marchesi says. "Then on Tuesday the week after, we called them and were like, 'You know what? You were right. We definitely broke those machines. They don't work. But we'd really love another set.' And they gave us another set.

"I think we might have broken them as well. But the third set we refined, and that set's been in the van since."

It wasn't just about finding a way to secure massive appliances in a moving van. There was also the matter of getting power and water into the van, managing wastewater and even working out how much laundry powder to use.

Sometimes even the smartest entrepreneurs have to call their mum for advice.

"'Mum, how many scoops of laundry powder do you put in a washing machine?' We didn't want our volunteers having the awkwardness of calling Mum or Dad... so we built a system that automatically injects the washing detergent into the washing machine," Marchesi says.

It's just one part of the process that Orange Sky Laundry has automated for its volunteers. But the real genius of these mobile laundry vans is that the whole operation of washing tonnes of laundry every week is now run by a simple app.

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The vans have been built to use every inch of real estate inside.

Orange Sky Laundry

The push of a button

The Orange Sky team realised early on that commercial washing machines aren't as user friendly as the kind you use at home. Need to kill a wash cycle to get something out of your jeans? That's a 22-button combination on a commercial machine.

Marchesi and Patchett started thinking about a way to simplify that process. And that's where software engineer, schoolmate and part-time Orange Sky volunteer Rhys May stepped in.

"We started looking into ideas of how we could actually control the washing machine, and turn that kill cycle from a 22-button push to one button," says May. "[But] we pretty quickly realised, if we can control washing machines, we can control anything."

May helped the team develop an Android app that runs on a tablet in every van, allowing volunteers to log in for their shift, set up a wash, control water pumps and valves, switch on lighting at night and even control a bubble machine on top of the van.

The app also allows the team to capture real-time wash data. From the start, Orange Sky has asked people to donate money by "buying" a wash for AU$6. Now, the app has created a platform for donors to see their money being put to use in real time, and to receive thank you messages from the people who've had their wash donated.

"All too often with not-for-profit charities, people donate and don't actually see the direct result of their donation," he says. "Being able to say, 'this year we washed 22,000 pairs of socks'... we can actually break down the impact we're having."

The 'F' word

Since "Suddsy" first hit the road, Orange Sky Laundry has washed 68,000 kilograms of laundry, fulfilling its three goals of raising health standards, reducing the strain on resources and restoring respect.

One year on from their Young Australian of the Year Award, with a volunteer empire behind them, Patchett and Marchesi still don't earn a cent from running Orange Sky. But they say they've learnt something much more valuable.

"The biggest thing we noticed is that it's not really about the laundry," says Marchesi. "It takes a couple of minutes to set up our vans, and then there's absolutely nothing to do, except sit down and have a chat."

What's it like chatting to a complete stranger who has been sleeping rough? Orange Sky has a different attitude to many big charities that work on the streets.

"We never used the 'C' word at Orange Sky, which is 'clients' or 'customers'. We use the 'F' word, which is 'friends'.

"We've got homeless friends that have been chefs around the world. We've got homeless friends that used to be in senior roles in companies... We're all made of the same stuff, and one or two things go wrong in our homeless friends' lives and they find themselves using our service.

"But that conversation is something that is really important in helping our homeless friends transition back into being connected into the community again."

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Lucas Patchett and Nic Marchesi (seated) chat to one of their friends on the street.

Orange Sky Laundry

They may have set up in 72 locations around Australia, but Marchesi and Patchett are still looking along the horizon. They say it's daunting that there are homeless people all over the world, but Orange Sky Laundry is the world's only mobile laundry service.

The boys have their eyes on overseas expansion. With 12 percent of donations in their first month of operation coming from America, Marchesi and Patchett have dedicated 2017 to expanding into the US.

In late 2016, they also set up Orange Sky Showers, a mobile van that offers a hot, clean shower to people living on the street.

But while they've conquered the obstacles of putting appliances in vans, building their own app and even bringing showers to the streets, Marchesi says Orange Sky Laundry is not about the tech.

"The most important thing in our vans is not the washing machines, the dryers, it's not the generator, it's not the bubble machines, it's not the app. It's those six orange chairs that foster that awesome conversation."