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Laundry Love helps homeless and low-income families in Huntington Beach

It's 8:30 on a Wednesday night and Beach Coin Laundry in Huntington Beach is packed.

Thirty people crowd inside, busily folding T-shirts, socks, shorts and bed sheets, and transferring their garments in and out of the washers and dryers making sure no machine is left empty for a minute.

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The laundromat has been taken over by Laundry Love Huntington Beach, a group of local volunteers who provide free laundry services to homeless and low-income families in the area, offering what may be their only way to get clean clothes for the month.

"We're not any official thing," said co-founder Christian Kassoff. "We're just a group of friends who wanted to give back."

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Laundry Love Huntington Beach started in 2012 as an outgrowth of the national Laundry Love movement that originated in Ventura when a small group of residents started brainstorming about how to become more active in the community.

"We're a bunch of restless Episcopalians who were getting tired of the Sunday morning service," said Kassoff, who was living out of his car and struggling with addiction before starting Laundry Love Huntington Beach. "It was a lot of church but not a lot of service. We wanted to dive into our community deeper."

After settling on the idea of Laundry Love — because clean clothes are critical to a person's sense of dignity, Kassoff explained, yet remain financially out of reach for so many — the group connected with Beach Coin Laundry, whose owner lets them "take over" once a month and use washers and dryers late into the night.

Kassoff also serves as a mentor to groups around the country who want to start Laundry Love branches in their own communities.

He estimated that about 50 people show up to his site every month — a third homeless, a third who are living out of their cars and a third who are housed but are low-income.

Now, five-and-a-half years after Laundry Love Huntington Beach started, it has become an entry point for a host of other services. The barbershop next door offers free haircuts and shaves. Bags of food and other goods are distributed, and fresh, hot meals are served.

Several months out of the year, Bill Bracken, founder and executive chef of the nonprofit Bracken's Kitchen, drives a food truck to the parking lot of the laundromat, where he cooks and distributes fresh, healthy meals for free.

In July, it was roasted chicken, Spanish rice, beans and vegetables.

"People are getting their laundry done, so if we can feed them a healthy, nutritious meal, hopefully it will make the laundry time go quicker," Bracken said.

Nayyer Alam, a Garden Grove resident who has been volunteering at Laundry Love Huntington Beach for more than three years, also provides meals a few times a year, by gathering families from the Islamic Society of Orange County to cook biryani, a South Asian dish of rice, meat and spices.

"Every two to three months, they say to me, 'Hey, when is the Indian food coming?' " Alam said, laughing. "It just gives us a good feeling, in a way, that at least for a few hours we're helping and making it easy for them."

In addition to clean clothes and good food, Kassoff said that Laundry Love also offers a much-needed sense of community.

"One thing that's unique about this situation — unlike food pantries or other similar kinds of services in the community — is that we have time to exhale and be still with people for a long period of time, and we get to listen," Kassoff said. "You load the washer, you've got 25 minutes, you load into the dryer, and you've got another 40 minutes. In that space you have time to be with each other."

"I know it's laundry, but there's something in this event that's a little more cheerful."

CAITLIN YOSHIKO KANDIL is a contributor to Times Community News.

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