AURORA | With temperatures vaulting into the 90s, the feeling that accompanies changing into a freshly laundered set of clothes this time of year can teeter toward spiritual.
Spending almost any time under the relentless Colorado sun — waiting for a bus, a light rail train or simply walking from the office to the car — can necessitate a quick wardrobe tweak. But for many people living along the East Colfax corridor of north Aurora, that simple joy of swapping a sweaty shirt for a clean one each day just isn’t practical. That’s because finding the next meal or a place to sleep takes precedence over having a fresh outfit.
Armed with a beaming smile and 80 brand new washers and dryers, Yemane Habtezgi is aiming to rework that sullen, compulsory hierarchy of needs.
“At the end of the day, for me, having clean clothes is all about self-confidence,” Habtezgi said.
Habtezgi, owner of Laundry on the Fax at 10941 E. Colfax Ave., launched a voucher program earlier this year that offers free, weekly wash and dry services to residents of north Aurora who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them. Since about January, Habtezgi has worked with the city to provide hundreds of free-laundry vouchers to clients of Aurora Warms the Night, Projects to Assist in the Transition from Homelessness (PATH), and Colfax Community Network.
“I’ve literally had clients crying with gratitude,” said Sarah Hamilton, executive director of Aurora Warms the Night, a non-profit shelter on Elmira Street. “It’s such a vital part of our clients’ lives, it’s amazing how something so small has such a huge impact. The response from them has been so overwhelmingly grateful.”
The city invested $3,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to help get the program off the ground with 375 initial vouchers this winter, though Habtezgi estimated he’s provided hundreds more at his own expense. He said he aims to serve about 100 vouchers per week by the year’s end, and expand the coupons to be valid throughout the week, whereas in the past they could only be used on Wednesdays. He added that he plans to eventually keep his laundromat open 24 hours a day and accessible to frequent customers via a security punch code.
“One piece that I think is really cool is the relationship between the city and the laundromat, because you have the city and small business supporting non-profits — it’s sort of like a dream come true,” said Megan Vizina, executive director of Colfax Community network.
Aaron Gagne, manager of Community Development for Aurora, said that he believes the city will elect to continue to subsidize the program.
“I expect we will continue it because it’s a simple program to administer, low cost to administer and targeting the right people with a basic, imminent need,” he said.
Habtezgi’s labor of love has already had a weighty impact for Aurorans such as Tom Holden Jr. and his wife, Denise. The couple, who live on Social Security disability insurance and have resided in the La Rue motel on Yosemite Street and East Colfax for the past seven months, said that the vouchers have alleviated the constant strain placed on their limited budget.
“We usually do laundry every three weeks, but unfortunately this month, it ended up having to be an extra three weeks, because we just didn’t have the money for it,” Tom said. “If it wasn’t for this voucher, we’d have to extend it to the end of the month again.”
An Eritrean native and father of three, Habtezgi said that he plans to extend the program to north Aurora elementary schools at the start of the upcoming school year.
Habtezgi is also part of a growing coalition of Aurora laundromat and car wash owners currently lobbying city council to oppose implementing a long-uncollected 3.75 percent sales tax on coin operated businesses until at least 2017. The issue is next set to be heard before the full city council at a study session on June 29.