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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Holy Wtr: A Ministry of Laundry in the Tenderloin

Zae Illo at the 8th Street Laundry in the Tenderloin, where he helps unhoused people wash their clothes.
Alastair Boone
Zae Illo at the 8th Street Laundry in the Tenderloin, where he helps unhoused people wash their clothes.

This story first aired in the July 2, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Doing laundry can feel like a chore. But for some, the hurdles to washing their clothing are nearly insurmountable. For people who are living on the street or are very-low income, the cost of doing laundry can be prohibitive. It’s even harder if you have a disability, and live up three flights of stairs. This is the problem Zae Illo is working to solve. He calls it a ministry of laundry: a religious practice of meeting people on the street, helping them wash their clothes, and through that, listening to their stories.

Outside of San Francisco’s Quaker Meetinghouse in the Tenderloin, there is an unusual kind of worship taking place.

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“You sure you don't want to wash what you're wearing?" Zae Illo asks a passerby. "I got, we have some, I gotta make sure he's here, but we have clothes downstairs. So, something you could change into. Yeah, let me check…”

Zae has been a congregant at the Meetinghouse for ten years. But in January, he started up his own ministry, right there on the sidewalk in front of the church.

“I have the detergent, I'm gonna pay for it. We just go to the 8th Street Laundry and I pay for it," he says to somebody else. "So, you just gotta get back in like an hour if you can get back.” 

Zae's setup outside the Quaker Meetinghouse, on 9th Street.
Alastair Boone
Zae's setup outside the Quaker Meetinghouse, on 9th Street.

His project is called Holy Wtr. The goal is to try to tackle one simple problem experienced by unhoused people in San Francisco: doing laundry.

Zae's folding table is an unassuming pulpit amongst the chaos of the street. He catches people as they wander through a haze of loud music, and sirens, and the crush of life outside. People stop to rest, or see what he’s doing.

"I have a bag," he offers a curious party. "Do you need a bag? To bring it in?"

"Yeah," she replies.

"Here, I have a bag. Actually, if you need one." 

And like that, he’s got a taker.

"Because I never get my laundry done. It's the hardest thing."

That’s Grace. We’re only using her first name out of respect for her safety as a woman in the process of getting off the street.

"If you can go, like, in the next, do you think you can be back, like, in the next half hour or so?," he asks. 

"Maybe, yeah," Grace replies.

Laundry can be an immense burden for people like Grace. For one, laundromats in San Francisco are disappearing: At least 40 have closed since 2018. And laundry is expensive. The place about a block from the Meetinghouse charges more than $10 for a single load.

“Why?" Zae asks, "Because they're vulnerable populations and because you can. Because it’s an essential service. Because we’re inflating prices at the same time that about 20 percent of the laundromats in San Francisco over the past 10 plus years have closed. Which means you have to go further and you don’t have a choice as to what you’re going to pay.”

At the 8th Street Laundry in the Tenderloin, every three minutes of dry time costs 25 cents.
Alastair Boone
At the 8th Street Laundry in the Tenderloin, every three minutes of dry time costs 25 cents.

Zae works at the intersection of the city’s homeless crisis, and its laundry crisis. I first met him when we worked for the same non-profit a couple of years back. He knows firsthand how difficult it can be to access this essential service.

“I grew up what I like to affectionately refer to as upper lower class" he jokes. "So, you know, you don't really have any direct experience with the system, but you're, you know, one or two paychecks away.”

This is literally what happened to Zae. In 2013, he was riding an Amtrak train from Chicago to San Francisco, when his employer stopped payment on his last check. This meant that when he got to San Francisco, he didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment. So he had to check into MSC-South, San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter.

“But I'd never actually checked into a shelter, so in my brain, I'm thinking, check into a shelter, it's like the Holiday Inn, you're like, you go to a desk, you make a reservation, they give you a key to a room or a bed or something," he jokes.
"[Thinking] I go up to the front desk and I say that I'm there to make a reservation, they give you a key to a room or a bed or something.”

But the city’s shelter system is not like a Holiday Inn. At times, there have been hundreds of people on the waitlist for San Francisco’s three 90-day shelters. And the people on the waitlist can try for a bed at an overnight shelter, instead.

“But those people could not use the laundry facilities," he remembers. "Only the people that had 90-day beds.”

Even for those with longer-term beds, a limited number of people can do laundry every night. And those slots fill up fast.

“If it's full, then you have to wait. Let's say you have an interview the next day. Tough luck," Zae recalls. "If you don't have the money to pay for a laundromat outside of the shelter, you just have to wait to the next, and try to, and rinse and repeat the same cycle, and try to, and then it consumes your next day, because you know you have to be back, et cetera, et cetera.”

Zae ultimately got his own apartment this year. But his experience in the shelter system showed him where some of the gaps are. He studied entrepreneurial ministry in Seminary school. Which, to him, was all about applying the framework of pastoral care to pressing social problems.

“Really the central thing that you're doing is listening to people.  And I've never forgotten that. And so I hope that the laundry effort, it is about clothes, but when you meet that pragmatic need of people, they'll also start talking to you.”

He believes that if policymakers actually listened to unhoused people and what they say they need, they could build more effective solutions to homelessness.

Tending to his laundry table on 9th Street, people ask Zae all sorts of questions.

“Do you have any other surveys or anything?," somebody asks. 

"Right now, I don't, I'm not running any surveys. No, my only survey is detergent and clothes right now. That's my only one,” Zae jokes.

He buys someone a cheeseburger, and helps several people sign up for the adult shelter waitlist.

Zae asks everybody he talks to whether they want to come back with their clothes and do some laundry. Lots of people say yes, and don’t come back. But others do; faith rewarded.

“She’s back! Yes!,” he says as Grace approaches the table.

“Did I get here on time?” She asks.

“You did very much! So you're so, so on time! Yay!” He exclaims.

“I won the prize of getting here on time!”

“Yay! All right. I'm glad that you came back.”

She’s back with two hefty laundry bags Zae had given her earlier that morning, full of clothes: one with lights and one with darks. Zae explains what will happen next.

“So what I was gonna do is walk over, let me put the bag in here. I'm gonna leave the table here and we'll just go now so you don't have to wait. Okay?”

Zae and Grace walk down the street to the laundromat with her clothes in heavy duty bags, provided by Holy Wtr.
Alastair Boone
Zae and Grace walk down the street to the laundromat with her clothes in heavy duty bags, provided by Holy Wtr.

They walk to the Eighth Street Laundry, just a block and a half away.

“And so how do you usually do laundry?” I ask Grace.

“I, I do it by hand,” she replies.

"In, in the bathroom, or?”

“No, in my sink, in my, yeah.”

Grace recently moved into low-income housing nearby. She says she has piles of clothes all around her room. There are no laundry services in the building. And there’s no visitors allowed which means no one can come help her with the basic chores that can get overwhelming when you’re just coming off the street.

At the laundromat, Grace pulls her clothes out of the bags and loads them into two machines. She’s got some precious items, like hand-me-downs, and garments made of delicate fabrics.

“These are light. I'm gonna go ahead and wash this but I'm not gonna dry it it's Angora...This is from my mother. And this other one is a wonderful dress.”

Zae feeds cash into the change machine, and gets quarters out. Enough for two washes and an hour of dry time: $13.50 in total.

“Okay. Here we go," he says, feeding the quarters into a machine."Off to the races.”

So far, Zae is paying out of pocket for all the costs associated with Holy Wtr. He says he’s spent something like $1,200 total on laundry bags, detergent, and washer and dryer time, plus some signage for his folding table. He has plans to form a nonprofit by the end of the year, so he can start applying for grants to help fund his work.

But the most important part of Holy Wtr, to Zae, doesn’t cost money. It’s the simple intimacy of listening to what somebody needs, and helping them meet those needs.

“That’s part of the power shift for people to tell you what they actually need," he explains. "And the long term impacts of that is we can actually start shaping systems to meet people's needs rather than from a higher macro perspective what we think people need. Which is exactly what has happened and we've done for the past few decades, and look at the outcome.”

That’s what his ministry is all about. Using laundry as a thread. A tether to a brighter future.

Zae works the laundry table every other Sunday, from about 9:00 to 1:00.
Alastair Boone
Zae works the laundry table every other Sunday, from about 9:00 to 1:00.

Crosscurrents Housing & HomelessnessCrosscurrents
Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit newspaper, and a member of KALW's 2024 Audio Academy.