On a recent Friday night, Westwood Center Laundromat, tucked away off the main drag in Rogers, was full of people talking, laughing and eating a buffet-style dinner while a gaggle of kids darted among the big coin-operated washers and dryers, their clothes a colorful, sudsy whirl inside. Though some of those in attendance were volunteers, marked by white aprons stuffed with quarters to run the washers and dryers, most of them were there to do something a lot of us take for granted: to wash and dry a few loads of clothes.
The monthly Laundry Love events in Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville are one of several initiatives of the Northwest Arkansas group Serve NWA, a nonprofit that grew from The Cobblestone Project founded in 2008. The events allow homeless and low-income residents to take care of a necessity that’s often overlooked by other charities, but that can quickly add up to a sizable expense. The largest washers at the Westwood Center Laundromat, for example, cost $5 in quarters to wash a double-size load, plus more for the dryer. Serve NWA also hosts a monthly “Art In The Park” event in Fayetteville and get-togethers to assemble and distribute packs of basic hygiene products.
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A clean, safe camp for the homeless is another Serve NWA goal: With its New Beginnings Community project, the nonprofit hopes to establish a permanent camp for the homeless at a site on 19th Street in Fayetteville. Serve NWA is taking a “housing first” approach to homelessness by giving people safe “microshelters” before working on sobriety, drug treatment and mental health issues that may have contributed to the person’s homelessness. The proposed camp would host up to 25 people, and would include a fenced perimeter, running water and bathrooms. Residents would be allowed to stay there for up to 180 days. The Fayetteville Planning Commission unanimously approved a permit for the camp Nov. 13. The plan next goes before the Fayetteville City Council for final approval.
Christie Martin, who has volunteered with Serve NWA for nine years, coordinates Serve NWA’s Laundry Love initiative. Martin said that part of the issue with homeless outreach in the area has always been that people don’t think of poverty and homelessness when they think of Northwest Arkansas, even though the 2017 Community and Family Institute Homeless Report estimates there were more than 2,900 homeless people in Benton and Washington counties, a figure that has jumped 20 percent in only two years. “When you think of Benton County, you think of Walmart and the [Walmart] supplier community and a lot of wealth,” Martin said. “So it’s staggering, the numbers hidden in the woodwork. It’s really evident when you really start looking at the schools, the number of children who are food insecure, and things like that.”
Martin said the Laundry Love initiative, which costs around $500 in quarters per event (soap and other products are donated by Gain laundry detergent), restores dignity to the people it serves, whether they’re homeless or just looking to save money for necessities like food, medicine or clothing. “There’s a confidence that comes with being able to present yourself in a way that makes you feel good and makes you feel more connected with those around you,” she said. “Having clean clothes helps you to feel confident about yourself, and that stretches into other parts of life.”
Betsy Clark, a Rogers resident who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who lost her home during the last recession, has been coming to the Laundry Love event for nine months. She called the ability to do half her monthly washing for free “a godsend.”
“It’s really been helpful. Terribly helpful. Awesome,” she said. “I can’t always afford to do laundry. … Clean clothes are an important thing in life, so it’s nice to have that. It’s something that you don’t realize you need until you don’t have it. You have $5 a load for laundry and then a couple dollars for the dryer, that’s a big deal, especially to low income and disabled people.”
Nearby, Jonathan and Carla Escobar were washing clothes while their children, Xzavier and Hazel, played nearby. Jonathan Escobar said they learned about the program after coming to the laundromat to do their wash. With growing kids and no washer or dryer at home, Escobar said, the laundry can really pile up, leading to a big expense at the laundromat.
“It saves us money for other things around the house — groceries or stuff that we need, stuff that the kids need for school,” he said. “I like this program. It helps a lot of people out and helps keep them from struggling. We’re trying to make it a thing for us to spread the love and the word to people who can’t wash at their house.”
In her time coming to the event, Betsy Clark said, she’s come to think of some of the volunteers and other participants she sees and eats with there every month as her brothers and sisters. Even after she gets her apartment in coming months, she said, she’ll likely come back as a volunteer, or to do a load of laundry every once in a while. “I very blessed. I feel a blessing for every one of them,” she said. “Having clean clothes is important. I watched ‘Little House on the Prairie!’ I can’t imagine bathing once a month. It’s the same with washing clothes. You have to have clean underwear at least! You might be in a wreck, like your mother said.”
For more information about its initiatives to help homeless or low income people in Northwest Arkansas, or to donate to or volunteer with Serve NWA, visit its website at serveNWA.org.