HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Over the long months that Victoria Mitchell lived in her car with her infant daughter, there was one bright spot in her life: doing laundry.
Every month, Mitchell would trek to a local laundromat and take advantage of Laundry Love, a growing faith-driven movement that helps those who are homeless or financially struggling by washing their dirty clothes for free.
Amid the comforting routine of fluffing and folding, volunteers befriend their patrons and often find ways to help that go beyond free soap and quarters.
Mitchell, for example, now has a job and place to live after the Laundry Love volunteers pooled their money to help her family rent a starter apartment. They have also watched her daughter Jessica grow from a newborn to a curly-haired toddler.
"You're not just checking a box to give a donation. You're spending the whole evening with these people and getting your hands dirty and it's intimate — you're doing people's laundry," said LuzAnna Figueroa, who volunteers at the group's Huntington Beach chapter and has grown close to Mitchell and her daughter.
Richard Flory, a religion expert from the University of Southern California who has studied Laundry Love extensively, said Mitchell is just one example of how the organization can profoundly impact people through something as simple as washing their clothes.
"It's an opportunity for people . to live out their faith out in a concrete way, in a frankly elegantly simple model where you do something that's necessary for people who don't have the means to do it for themselves," Flory said.
The movement began about 10 years ago with a small Christian church in Ventura, California, and has since spread to more than 100 locations throughout the country to people from all faiths.
Christian Kassoff started the Huntington Beach chapter two years ago with his wife, Shannon. On a recent warm summer night, Kassoff glanced around the laundromat and smiled at the dozens of people who depend on him and the other volunteers for clean laundry each month.
Classic hits from David Bowie and The Clash blasted through speakers as patrons pushed around wheeled metal baskets full of laundry and stuffed loads of dirty clothes — some not washed for weeks — into industrial-sized machines.
Those doing their laundry also lined up outside to eat their fill of tacos as volunteers prayed inside before starting the night's washing.
David Clarke, who has been coming to the laundromat for four months after losing his job as an aerospace machinist, estimates he's saved $200 on laundry in that time, but said he gets a lot more from the washing sessions than savings.
"These people are wonderful people. They want to know what's going on in your life," he said. "They really care about you and how you're doing."
Kassoff, his arms laced with tattoos, recalled a time in his life just over 10 years ago when he was in a similar situation to many of those who come — addicted to heroin and living in his car. At his lowest point, he said, he started attending services at his local Episcopal church.
His newfound faith, he said, saved his life and motivated him to help others in need.
"I'm not wealthy but I have the gift of time and a heart for it, so this fits," Kassoff said.
Flory said that's why the movement has taken off — the simplicity and necessity of washing clothes. The Huntington Beach chapter began as an Episcopal outreach, but now welcomes volunteers of any faith, including members of a local mosque who started showing up recently.
Juan Montes was reluctant to attend Laundry Love several months ago after a friend invited him to volunteer. He now goes every month and looks forward to the conversations he will have, even though his friend has stopped going.
"It's changed me in the way that now when I see people who are homeless, I don't see them like an object. Now their stories come to mind, names come to mind because I've had conversations with them," he said.