AURORA | Yemane Habtezgi has a knack for helping people when they need it most.
A year ago, he spotted Diedre Hammer hanging out beside his East Colfax laundromat. Hammer, who was homeless at the time, would spend early mornings sitting on the patio in front of Laundry On The Fax after meandering the region each night.
A recovering drug addict, Hammer said she was desperate for a job when Habtezgi approached her and asked her if she was looking for work.
“I remember thinking that it would be nice if I could see a star, a light, a flicker or something, and he came out and asked, ‘Do you want a job?,'” she said. “I said, ‘You don’t know how bad I do.’ I’ve been working for him ever since.”
Hammer, 50, is now an independent contractor at the 80-machine laundry joint, helping keep the space tidy and helping customers wash and fold their clothing. Her earnings have managed to get her off the street and into her own condo about four blocks away.
“A little bit of courage is all it takes, but when you’re down and out without any self esteem, it’s hard to pick yourself up and do that,” Hammer said. “You have to find that one special person who can give you a shot.”
Now, the duo at the corner of Kenton Street and Colfax is endeavoring to pay it forward during the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the local economy.
A native of Eritrea, Habtezgi is rolling out a program offering discounted laundry to first responders and other front-line workers who continue to report to work even as state residents are urged to stay at home as much as possible. Hammer will be in charge of the service, which ideally will allow public safety personnel, medical staff and certain other public-facing workers, such as bus drivers and janitors, to drop off their duds and have them cleaned.
“We have to do what we have to do,” Habtezgi said. “I feel like I’m on the first line right now seeing what people are going through. For me, helping the first responders is very, very important.”
Emergency workers will be charged $1 for a 25-pound bag of clothing, which will be laundered and delivered to their homes for free. Workers can bring in up to two bags per week, Habtezgi said. Along with his daughter, he’s started a GoFundMe page to underwrite the discount laundry program.
He added that he’s thinking about adding a similar program for people who have recently lost their jobs, though he’s still working through a process that would allow him to verify such claims.
In the meantime, Habtezgi said he’s seen the decimation the virus has left in its wake. He stayed at his outpost until 1 a.m. earlier this week helping a man who came in moments before he was slated to close asking to use his machines when fewer people were around and less likely to transmit the disease. He spotted another woman — a recently laid off restaurant worker — who couldn’t take money out of his ATM because she only had $13 in her account; his machine only allows withdrawals in increments of $20.
“It’s a very scary time,” he said.
Still, he’s vowed to stay open and is considering extending his schedule to 24 hours a day so people have more opportunities to wash with fewer people around. He’s already mandated that only eight people can be in his building at any given time, and he’s taken all of the chairs out of the common area so people spend less time dawdling.
And Hammer, who’s known to regular customers as “Dr. Laundry,” is militant about disinfecting surfaces.
“I’m taking every precaution I possibly can,” she said.
Hammer said she’s primed to starch and fold any uniforms that start showing up in the facility’s tumblers.
“It’s fun, and It’s natural to me,” she said. “Nobody is ever going to want their clothes washed by anybody else ever again.”