A few weeks ago, only one of the eight dryers at Joy’s Village Cleaners was working, and those who were washing their clothes were frustrated by the long waits that resulted.
Indeed, some customers say, they’ve given up on Vashon’s laundromat and now haul their dirty clothes to Seattle or Tacoma. They say the equipment at the Vashon laundromat is often broken; that they’ve had articles of clothing stolen; that some of the people who hang out there seem dissolute and troubled.
Vashon’s police officers also express concern, calling the site an epicenter for drugs and other illicit activity on Vashon.
“The majority of the crime on the island is perpetrated by just a small group of people, and a majority of that group of people just happen to hang out at the laundromat,” said Dep. Jeff Hancock with the King County Sheriff’s Office.
The deputies who patrol Vashon have worked to clean up the Village Green over the last few months, Hancock noted. Now, many of the people who used to loiter at the park have found their way to Joy’s, he said.
“There are some really, really unsavory characters at the laundromat,” Hancock said.
But Joy Humphreys, who purchased the business with her husband George 25 years ago, tears up when asked about the situation at the laundromat and dry-cleaning operation that bears her name. Her husband died a year ago, one week after going into the hospital because of a fall; unbeknownst to Joy, he had cancer. He was 88.
“My husband was an accountant and an electrician. He kept things going around here. Then he died, and everything landed on me,” she said.
Now, the 83-year-old woman, who wears her long white hair in a loose braid and comes to work every day with her friendly, black-and-white dog named Shadow, says she’s struggling to keep the business afloat. She recently fired her daughter because she felt she could no longer trust her. Two men work for her, both of whom have struggled to keep a roof over their heads and one of whom sleeps in either his car or a tent on his mother’s property, she said.
By her own admission, she’s both “soft-hearted and soft-headed,” and she questions some of the business decisions she’s made — feeling, at once, that she should probably be more prudent and that she really has had little choice.
“I’m trying to teach myself how to keep things going, and I’m not having a very good time of it,” she said. “It’s just been a terrible year.”
She also said she feels considerable compassion for the homeless on Vashon, particularly during the recent cold snap. She hired a homeless man to sweep and clean the laundromat each night for $10, and on especially frigid nights, she lets him sleep on the floor or a bench, she said.
“I wouldn’t let my dog stay out all night,” she said, explaining her decision. “It seems like the right thing to do. … I feel I need to take care of these people.”
She recalls showing up early one morning recently to find a man she didn’t know asleep in the laundromat. She took it in stride, she said.
“If the door’s unlocked and it’s raining or snowing, I don’t care if they come in here and sleep,” she said.
At the same time, Joy said, she knows that some in the community aren’t happy with her laundromat. What’s more, the dry-cleaning business has dropped off considerably over the past few years. Last week, as she stood at the counter of the dry-cleaning side of the business, she said she didn’t have a single load to work on.
So last month, she said, she contacted a real estate agent at Windermere to discuss selling it. It has yet to be officially listed, but she’s ready for that to happen. “I’m 83, and I’m tired,” she said.
Vashon used to have two laundromats, but now, Joy’s is the only one, and advocates for low-income islanders say it plays an important role in the community. The Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness routinely gives people the coins they need to wash their clothes, said Emma Amiad, president of the nonprofit organization.
“A laundromat is critical to the community,” Amiad said. “If it weren’t there, we’d all be forced to go off island to do our damn laundry. That’s just crazy.”
But some islanders have grown frustrated with the condition of Joy’s Village Cleaners — and many have done just that.
Rob Donker, who has lived on the island since 1992, has used it off and on over the years — more recently because of a rebuilding project at his home. The place has never been especially spiffy, he said, but “it seems to have gotten steadily worse.”
He’s frustrated by the number of dryers that don’t work and put off by the “sketchy-looking characters,” he said. Lately, he’s started hauling his laundry to Seattle. “I can’t stand going into that place,” he said.
Marcia Pearson, another islander who has used the laundromat occasionally, said she’s seen people storm out of the laundromat, furious by the conditions. She witnessed a woman break into tears because her clothes had been stolen. And when George Humphreys was alive, she recalled, he’d tell her he’d been there until midnight the night before, trying to keep his aging equipment operating.
Sympathetic though she is to Joy’s plight, Pearson said it no longer makes sense to launder her clothes there, in light of how frequently the dryers don’t work.
“The last time I was there, there just weren’t enough dryers available, and I decided, ‘That’s it,’” she said.
Joe, one of the two men who works for Joy and who declined to give his last name, said he knows the broken dryers have been an issue and he’s working hard to get them fixed. But it’s tricky, he said.
He’s not a trained repairman. What’s more, he added, “All the stuff’s old.”
Even so, Joe said, he’s pleased that he’s turned the situation around — at least temporarily. Two weeks ago, only one dryer was working. Last week, he said, it was just the opposite: Only one was broken.
Meanwhile, he said, he and some of the homeless people who spend time at the laundromat are trying to help Joy improve the place.
In December, one homeless man strung Christmas lights around the exterior of the modest building in an effort to cheer up Joy, who was feeling particularly blue over the holidays, Joe said. And Joe recently got some planters and other outdoor decor items and put them in front of the shop. He filled the planters with ferns and other plants that he dug up from the woods.
Joy, listening to Joe discuss his beautification efforts, added, “I came in and saw they had gotten the place looking nice. I was surprised.” She smiled. “Some surprises I don’t mind.”
Joy takes issue with the suggestion that her laundromat is a center of drug activity. Told that the police say drugs are dealt behind her shop, she shrugged.
“That’s not my problem,” she said.
At the same time, she’s admonished Joe and her other worker, Mark, to pay attention to who’s loitering on the premises.
“I don’t want all these scummy people hanging out here,” she said.
She says she hopes the place sells, in part because she knows the laundromat is a part of the fabric of Vashon’s community life.
Glancing at the people doing their laundry, she said, “If I close the doors, they wouldn’t have anyplace to get their clothes cleaned. I don’t want to let anybody down.”