Community laundry co-operative helps vulnerable communities in Ottawa

A laundry co-operative is helping vulnerable communities in Canada access services at affordable prices.

Founded in 1999, the Community Laundry Co-op was set up as a partnership between First United Church, Centretown United Church and Centretown Community Health Centre.

The capital of Ontario province, Ottawa is the sixth most expensive city in Canada and 15.2% of its residents live on low income. After the provincial government cut spending in 1997, a number of community organisations hosted a series of People’s Hearings on Poverty which identified problems including the lack of affordable laundry services.

“We chose the co-operative model largely because the essence of our approach to the Laundry was that it would be co-operative – and we couldn’t legally use the words ‘Co-op’ or ‘Co-operative’ in our name unless we were officially incorporated as one,” said board member Marg Fallis.

“It was actually quite complicated because there are very few co-operatives that are also charities and we had to achieve that charitable status.

“It has turned out that the legal ‘co-operative’ status has little impact on how we operate. What is important is that staff, board, members and volunteers work together contributing in the ways that they can to create a welcoming environment and provide a much needed service.”

The co-op provides members – who join for C$2 – with self-service laundry services at C$1 a load, below the market price.

It also offers training and mentoring and acts as a support network, as some of its members have mental health issues, addictions or disabilities. Around 75% of members rely on government programmes as income while 99% are living in poverty.

The co-op is also reaching out to recent immigrants, providing a friendly environment where they can practise their English and access the support of the broader community.

To help vulnerable members, the co-op operates a community economic development programme, offering laundry and delivery services to local clients at competitive rates. The programme offers work experience, skills development and additional income.

The co-op has helped 144 members since 2003, 50% of whom have moved on to full-time or part-time jobs, returned to school or obtained volunteer positions.

Every month around 40 members and non-members also access formal counselling and information, referral and social support on a drop-in basis. Since setting up in 1999 the co-op has improved the lives of more than 1,780 members.

“At any time, over 300 members are actively involved per month. These are individuals and families who regularly use the laundry facilities, come for counselling, volunteer, participate in workshops/job training, come to socialise or need a referral for other services in the city,” said Ms Fallis.

She added that in spite of its success, the co-op currently has no plans of expansion.

“The need is there,” she said, “and we have had inquiries about setting up satellites in other parts of the city but funding for small charities is scarce and we don’t foresee more money becoming available.”