On a rainy October morning, a handful of volunteers arrived at the Logan Park encampment in northeast Minneapolis with bags and tags.
“Good morning!” Sarah Roth called as she went from tent to tent. “Last call for laundry!”
She paused at a blue tent, still zipped tight: “Brandon, are you set?”
“I’m good, thanks,” a groggy voice replied from inside.
For months, the People’s Laundry has had a simple aim: to wash clothes for folks who could use the help. At first, dozens of volunteers picked up bags upon bags of dirty clothes at the encampments that popped up in parks across Minneapolis. But as many of those parks were cleared, volunteers followed, making pick-ups wherever they’re needed.
Those volunteers load the clothes into their cars or onto their bikes, bringing them home. They wash, dry — and sometimes treat, mend and patch. Then, a day or two later, they return the clothing to its owners. On a recent evening, about 30 people living along the Greenway received a fresh batch.
“It’s a need that everybody has,” said Deanna Bruzelius. “As a white homeowner myself, I feel ridiculously privileged ... How can we use some of the privileges we have to help other people? It just seemed like an easy thing to do.”
Bruzelius helped launch the group, which counts some 300 volunteers on its roster, after George Floyd’s death in May and the protests that followed. She was in a chat with a bunch of strangers, sorting out the needs that had arisen, when someone mentioned that a family had lost access to a laundromat. Others chimed in with similar stories.
Bruzelius went into “full hustler mode,” and the People’s Laundry was born.
“We were thinking short-term at that moment,” Bruzelius said. But, months later, “we’re going strong and probably have been doing laundry every day since.”
The group has never been good at counting — they’re “too busy making it happen” — but likely washes between 150 and 300 bags of laundry a week, Bruzelius said. More, if you’re going by loads.
The People’s Laundry is part of a network of mutual aid organizations that has been tending to the encampments, making sure that the people living there have food, shelter, supplies and clothes. Clean clothing, too. Before they arrived at Powderhorn Park, some residents were washing their shirts, pants and underwear in the lake, hanging them in trees to dry, hoping they wouldn’t get swiped.
At Powderhorn’s height, volunteer Emily Graham was part of a group that laundered some 80 bags of laundry twice a week. After Floyd’s death, she had joined “every Facebook group I could find,” looking for ways to contribute. She stumbled upon the People’s Laundry and appreciated how hands-on it felt to collect and wash clothes.
“It was nice to make a practical, tactical, meaningful difference in people’s lives right now,” she said.
She’s gotten to know residents and how they like their laundry; people fill out an online form or a paper tag, noting any skin sensitivities. Turning over your clothes, she noted, is “an act of trust.”
This fall, as permits have expired and encampments have shuttered, the People’s Laundry volunteers have worked to stay in contact with residents and other helpers.
“We’re just trying to keep track of people,” Graham said, “so we can continue to support them wherever they are.”
But the moves have exposed just how Minneapolis-centric the organization’s volunteers are. In many cases, the volunteers were picking up laundry at encampments in their neighborhoods. Now, they’re trekking to hotels in Bloomington. In early October, the group got a request from an unhoused person near Le Center, about 60 miles from Minneapolis. But the closest volunteer lives in Prior Lake, some 45 minutes away.
“That isn’t sustainable,” Bruzelius said. “We need more folks from everywhere willing to step up and help.
“If Bloomington could show up the way Minneapolis showed up, it would really help give the Minneapolis volunteers a break.”
On a recent morning, Bruzelius opened the door to her north Minneapolis garage, revealing racks of jackets, sweaters and pants, sorted by size and femme/masc. Shelves of shoes and boots. Bags upon bags of clothing.
The People’s Closet.
Realizing that many residents didn’t have enough clothing to part with for a cleaning, volunteers began collecting. They got donations from secondhand stores. They raised money to buy underwear and socks.
Then they asked: What do you need?
Residents fill out forms, getting specific. Then volunteers work to match their size and style. That brings some order to a donation system that, at the parks, was often disorderly. Well-meaning people would drop off random bags of clothing — often not what folks living there needed.
The first time she went to the garage-turned-closet to fill orders, Graham got teary. Medium leggings were requested, she said, “but are they for a 50-year-old femme person? Or for a teenager?”
She realized then that “even style is a privilege.”