Orange Sky: delivering dignity to the homeless

Lucas Patchett
Lucas Patchett
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In this episode of The Remarkables, we speak with former Young Australian of the Year, cofounder and Chief Executive Officer of Orange Sky, Lucas Patchett.

Orange Sky is a not-for-profit organisation creating an inclusive environment for people who are living rough through providing access to laundry facilities and shower services. With the recent cost of living crisis and low housing stock, there is a growing demographic of hidden homelessness. World Homelessness Day is on 10 October – so how do we try to destigmatise homelessness, increase housing stock, and help people who are living rough? 

In this episode, Lucas discusses what keeps him and cofounder Nic motivated to do the work they do, the real impacts of homelessness and Orange Sky’s growth journey.

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or within your browser.

For more information on Orange Sky, click here.

Read the full transcript here

Rebecca Archer
Welcome to The Remarkables – Grant Thornton’s podcast that seeks to uncover stories about remarkable people doing incredible things for their community, bettering the world for future generations and inspiring others to do the same.

I’m Rebecca Archer, and today I’m joined by Lucas Patchett – former Young Australian of the Year, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Orange Sky. Lucas co-founded Orange Sky in 2014 with his school friend Nic Marchesi, and together they have created a successful not-for-profit organisation that provides free laundry services to people living rough across Australia.

It’s fitting that we’re having this conversation so close to World Homelessness Day. On this day, communities are encouraged to think about how we can combat homelessness globally. 

Welcome Lucas – thank you for joining us on the podcast today!

Lucas Patchett 
Thanks for having me.

Rebecca Archer
So, Lucas, when exactly did the idea of Orange Sky come to you and Nic?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, Nic and I were best mates through high school and we were totally different – I was probably more interested in sports and school and Nic wasn't too interested in any of that, but we had this common connection of helping people and coming together, and our school actually ran a food service that fed people who were experiencing homelessness, and so, from the age of 15, we were lucky enough to be out in the streets and chatting to people who you'd never have that experience, to be able to talk to someone who might have slept in a park or be in a boarding house in a local place, sort of close around the city in Brisbane. And so, we did this for a couple of years through school. We really connected through this. We had lots of mates do it as well, and it was a really just kind of pivotal part of us growing up and the extension of seeing your parents do stuff with the school fetes and stuff when you're younger, and really just that community mindedness, which was really embedded with us from an early age. And we really enjoyed doing that. 

And a couple of years out of school had passed. I'd gone to uni full time, Nic had gone into work full time, sort of left that part of our life behind us, and after a couple of years, I'd spent a stint overseas and got back and had nothing really ahead of me in terms of had a bit of break from uni, had no job yet. And we caught up for breakfast and we started talking about this idea that we'd sort of sat on for a little while around, how could we value add to that food van that we used to do, and what else could we do to sort of expand that service? And we'd play with this idea of washing and having it in a truck or a little van, and eventually I said to Nic, I was like, mate, I got nothing on. Let's give it a go.

That was July 2014, and from there it's just really taken on life its own.

Rebecca Archer
Where does the name come from? I'm a bit fascinated by that.

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, it's funny, when we were starting, one, we couldn't think of anything else, two, it's actually a song, Orange Sky, by a British fellow whose name is Alexi Murdoch, and it's an awesome song – really chilled, acoustic, and it's a song we really loved. We listened to it a lot through school and the song talks about helping out your brothers and sisters and everyone standing underneath an orange sky together, and for us, we couldn't think of anything else. Like I said, we're not politically or religiously associated. We love the name, we love the song, we love the colour, and we went with it on the first band and off we went.

And I think looking back now, there is such nice symbology around the sunrise and sunset and how the day starts and ends, but there wasn't that much thought put into it in the early days. It was really just a name and a song that we loved.

Rebecca Archer
So, what motivates you and Nic to do what you do, and to keep at it?

Lucas Patchett 
For us, it's all about people. Orange Sky, I think when you look at it, you think about, oh, it's about washing machines, it's about technical gains or volunteer structures and stuff. But actually – ultimately – it comes down to people. Like, we've got 3,000 volunteers now; we've got over 1,600 shifts that happen every month across the country, and every single one of those shifts we're washing, drying over 8,000 loads of washing, 600 showers, but most importantly, about 10,000 hours of conversation every month, and that's really behind every wash, behind every shower, behind every hour of conversation, there's an amazing story to be heard. And that for us, it started when we were 15, meeting someone like Harry, who was just like my uncle or my granddad, who had the same stories that went on and on and on forever, or terrible jokes. 

Or if that was for Jordan, the guy that we first washed clothes for in Brisbane, who we actually let down those first couple of times with the machines failed and didn't quite work out. But then eventually being able to wash and dry his clothes after a couple of false starts, and that feeling of having let him down on those first couple of days and being like, that's a pretty tough feeling. So how do we never have that feeling again? And how do we just keep trying to deliver this for as many people as possible that need it? 

And I think as we've grown as well, and as we've had more communities come on board, it's almost unlocked for us this – we sort of fluked this idea and blueprint, but now with the scale and with how many people we can actually impact, we almost have this – obligation is a heavy word – but it's like we're the only ones doing it at the scale we're doing it so how can we just keep doing it as best we can and deliver it to as many people as possible? And I think when you overlay what's happening in the world at the moment in terms of, like, rental crisis and cost of living and everything, that's pushing people closer and closer to the edge, and that's part of the reason we talk about people that we help as our friends, not as people who are homeless or homeless people are experiencing homelessness, because that's very label centric, and we just want a place and a community that anyone can come together, anyone can get service.

And so, for us, it's about continuing to deliver that as best we can.

Rebecca Archer
What sort of feedback do you get from the people that you're helping?

Lucas Patchett 
It's so wide and so varied, and I think when we think about the people that we help, obviously the people that we support are our target people to support. But also, you have this ring around them in terms of, like, our volunteers, who some of them are lonely and isolated and that's their connection with the community every week. Or it's a donor who gives us $5 a month, who sees and hears and feels a part of that broader community as well. 

So, the feedback is so varied. I was out in shift last night actually and chatting to one of the friends that we've known for – she's been using our service for about six months or twelve months now – when she first engaged with our service, similar story that we've heard a lot – her rent got put up, she couldn't afford the increase she made I think 36 rental applications, all of them got knocked back and she was forced to living in her car – a lady by the name of Betty and from there she was forced into her car, had no other option, stumbled across an Orange Sky van one day, started washing and drying her clothes and just that little pressure release to save a little bit of money on laundry. But more importantly to connect with that community and to be a part of that community sort of became a big part of her time. 

And a couple of months ago she just got placed into accommodation, but she's still coming down to that shift because that's now become part of her routine and part of her community. So, I think the feedback is like the volunteers. We're not there to fix anything or preach anything, it's really just we're just there to have a chat and to be non-judgmental.

So, all walks of life come in and chat to us and then same from a volunteer perspective. I was chatting to one of our volunteers last night who was talking about – he's turning 50 this year, he joined us about six months ago. He's sort of had this midlife crisis maybe about five years ago where he sort of quit his corporate job and wanted to focus in on other areas and making more of an impact, and part of that was volunteering as well because his kids were getting older and he wanted to be that role model for his kids as well. 

So, I think, yeah, it's multifaceted and comes in all shapes and sizes, and that's back to the earlier point around what motivates me is that those stories and people that make orange sky so unique, and so special.

Rebecca Archer
I think, a lot of people probably don't realise just how close a lot of us are to homelessness and just how easily it can happen. What have you learned about that whole process and how homelessness can affect so many people in Australia and globally?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, absolutely. The new census came out about six months ago and found 122,000 Aussies experiencing homelessness and there's a few definitions in terms of people rough sleeping, people in temporary accommodation, people in sort of substandard accommodation as well, and so there is a pretty big spectrum. But for Betty – Betty worked full time as a cleaner and actually couldn't afford to keep herself housed. 

So, there is this growing demographic of people who know sleeping rough or sleeping in cars for extended periods of time because they actually can't afford to do that or as they kind of recalibrate within their life as well, and it does happen so quickly, it just sneaks up on you. 

And for people who live paycheck to paycheck, it can just be a medical bill, a car breakdown, something unforeseen in the family that happens, and it can happen really quickly, and I think that's what we see and that's part of the work we do in terms of our storytelling as well, is that homelessness is so stigmatised that people's experience with people doing it tough is the person you might walk past on the walk to the train with a sign and who might be begging, and that is a reality for some people, but is a much smaller percentage than the sort of hidden homelessness that we more see.

So, I think that a big part of our role now is actually how do we demystify homelessness, how do we share as many different stories as possible because it is so much broader and so much more challenging, and another big surge that we've seen is people who are still in accommodation and living housed, but they actually want to engage with those community meals, because in the suburbs, you might have those community meals where they can come down with the kids, feed them do load of washing, and that might take $50 a week out of the budget, which is just a pressure release for people in what's a pretty tough time. 

So, I think that whole balance and I think that's also a lot of the work we do around people don't see themselves as homeless who fall in that category so that's really why we try and steer away from words like that and labels like that, because it does even stigmatise it further.

Rebecca Archer
And since you launched, obviously we've seen a global pandemic and of course, more recently, the cost of living and housing crisis that's affecting a lot of people globally and of course, here in Australia. What have you noticed about how this has affected the communities that you're serving?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, similarly, I think we're seeing the ramifications of it now with the cost of living, and probably the thing we saw early on was for Orange Sky, we're an organisation built on people from all walks of life, all demographics, all ages, congregating in public spaces for a couple of hours and having conversations and building relationships. 

And so, the pandemic, it was terrible for us in the sense, and we're dealing with a vulnerable community as well. So, we had to really quickly reshape and reshuffle exactly what we did, and as we have rebuilt from that, we have seen a shift in terms of less people concentrated around the cities and CBDs and surround areas, and that's in all of our big cities across Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, even Perth, that traditionally have been your sort of central points – if that's Martin place in Sydney or the Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, or Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne, which there's still people around, but the demand isn't quite there, and people have actually been pushed sort of 10-15 K's out into the suburbs, which is where the community meals at a church or the soup kitchen that turns up, those larger people turning up for those meals. 

So, I think we're seeing the cost of living that's really been precipitated, I think, by COVID and other factors as well, but it's been people moving out of the city, it's been more people reaching out for demand and for services, and so we're just doing the best we can to respond.

Rebecca Archer
Do you think loneliness is increasing in the homelessness community? Would that be a fair assessment or is it actually the opposite? People are sort of getting together and there's almost a community spirit that's bringing people together.

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, it's a good question. I think that homelessness, I think if you look more broadly, loneliness is in epidemic in some proportions across the world, I think, and you look at the UK in the last couple of years have appointed a Loneliness Minister, and there's more and more vulnerable groups that are popping up – if that's in aged care or if that's in homelessness or if that's in other areas. 

And so, I think generally we're so much more connected, but so much more disconnected as well in terms of homelessness. I think you get pockets of this magic of people who look out for each other and support each other, but they're probably people who are a bit more established in those communities. I think, ultimately for people who are quickly falling into that – so for Betty when she's all of a sudden gone, I have no other option, I'm sleeping in my car – that I can't even imagine the loneliness that that would be.

And so, for us then it's about how do we show up in as many of those spots that people might first surface to? And so that's where in every city you've kind of got those areas – if that's in Woolloomooloo down in Sydney or if that's towards CBD area in Melbourne or in Roma Street here in Brisbane, it's really people kind of, I suppose, will gravitate, and that's where you can get a feed and that's where you can start that reconnection journey. 

And I think that first week, month, couple of months is going to be incredibly lonely and difficult, and I think it's about how quickly we can connect, make them feel part of a community and then support them on their journey as well. So, if that, again, using Betty as that example of connecting, coming along, us then helping her with her housing application stuff and then transitioning out – that's a really positive story that we see, but is incredibly overall, lonely and disconnecting for anyone.

Rebecca Archer
Do you have any experiences with people who have been sleeping rough and homeless and then they've found housing and they want to continue to show their support for what you've done for them by coming back as volunteers for your organisation?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, absolutely. We got plenty of examples of that. One example I'll use is a fellow Nev who was actually one of the first guys to use our service here in Brisbane, and about twelve months into using it, we started printing our own T shirts for our volunteers. And Nic and I were terrible at it, and we were chatting to Nev one morning, do you want to come and have a go at this? And he came back to our little workshop and started screen printing and he just took to it like a fish to water – like he was very detailed, very focused, and just very structured in how he took it, which is not really how Nic and I operated at the time, and so he started printing all of our T shirts for Orange Sky.

At that point he was sleeping in a park and living off food vans, and we sort of gradually worked with him and supported him into accommodation. He started working with us full time; he still works for us. He's just had his seven-year anniversary and every volunteer still in their welcome pack will get a shirt, a hat, a hoodie printed by Nev and a little welcome note from Nev as well saying, welcome to the team, and I think he's one of – obviously it's a special example in that he's worked for us full time – but then we've had multiple examples of people who've had that experience have come back to give back, and especially as we get older as an organisation, there's going to be more and more of that, of people re engaging.

And I think the depth and perspective that some of those people can bring. Like, we've got a volunteer, he's no longer volunteering with us, but he was for a long period of time – Damo down the central coast – and the experience and the knowledge that he could bring and just it adds an extra depth to those conversations, which is ultimately what we're all about.

Rebecca Archer
Lucas, you already mentioned the 122,000 people nationally who were homeless in the latest census. Those figures came from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I wonder, and this is a big question from your experience, what we need to do to combat homelessness?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, it's a massive challenge. I think it's really two pillars for me. One is we need more housing stock; we need more social housing, we need more supportive accommodation for people to move into. I think then the challenge is, and where Orange Sky fits in, is that if we see that as the only option, like, people who are coming out of this experience have every realm of challenge for the really complex cases, they're some of the most challenging and complex cases in the world. For other people, it's an easier transition and is sort of a quick drop in and hopefully a quick exit out of homelessness. 

But then the second piller is really around that support service around, so you can't just put a roof over someone's head and expect them to be all good. It's then how do you make sure they're part of a community? How do you support with reintegration into whatever direction they want to go? If that's work or volunteering or finding a purpose, if that's creating that community around them, that is the people that they talk to when they've had a tough day or they celebrate their wins with as well, and I think that's really where those two things need to go hand in hand.

So, has there been a tremendous amount of investment? I don't know; I'm not a housing expert, but I'm sure that we can be doing more in terms of over the long term, what that looks like and then those wraparound services and then where Orange Sky plays is we're lucky that we've been able to almost disrupt the sector a little bit, be a bit innovative, try some different things and work through some different models. And so, I think we need innovation in this space as well for those two things to really go hand in hand and work into the future as well. 

So, it's an area that I'm obviously passionate about. We sort of have landed and grown in over the last nine years, but know that there's a pretty big challenge ahead of us as well.

Rebecca Archer
And what can individuals who may be more fortunate, even if it's not financially, what can people do to actually make a contribution?

Lucas Patchett 
There's so many different ways, I think you mentioned financially there in terms of donating, there's so many tremendous charities out there that are doing incredible credible work all across the country. If you're really passionate about your local area, you might be a passionate about a different area, then there's so many out there that are doing some tremendous stuff, and that applies from a donation perspective, but also from a time perspective of how do you actually get in there, make an impact, and that can be anything from out on the streets through to skilled volunteering in a boardroom or whatever as well. So, there's a pretty broad spectrum in terms of how people can help. 

And then I think the final part is just be educated, understand, try and destigmatise some of those things for yourself. And so, when it does pop up, which I'm sure it does in all of our different social circles at different times, that you actually have a little bit more knowledge to challenge those stereotypes and stigmas and then even simple things. I know that one thing that when I'm walking around the streets and seeing people who are doing it tough, a simple acknowledgement, or even if you've got five minutes to stop and say good day. For someone who's sitting in Martin place in Sydney and gets walked past by thousands of people in the day and maybe only a handful of people actually look at them, it's a pretty tough, dehumanising thing. 

So, I know I always make an effort to say good day and look someone in the eye or even stop for a quick chat on the odd occasion as well, which I think sometimes it's easier as a human to just try and ignore and be blissfully ignorant, but I think there's more we can all do.

Rebecca Archer
Now, your team is obviously doing so much to try and make a change across Australia with a presence in every state. Tell us about the growth journey for Orange Sky.

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, it's been a pretty wild nine years. We kicked off with Sudsy, our first van here in Brisbane, and then very quickly had people from all around the world and Australia reaching out, saying, oh, we want to bring this to anywhere and everywhere. And so, we've sort of been on that journey since. 

We've now got 57 services across 37 locations here in Australia, and then five services in four locations in New Zealand. So pretty broad range. Mentioned some stats before, about 3,000 volunteers, washing, drying, 8,000 loads a month, 600 showers. But most importantly, those 10,000 hours of conversation, it's evolved from just laundry services. We've got vans of showers on board, we've got larger vans with three washers, three dryers, and we've also got like a little laundry pod, which is sort of a semi mobile, sort of mini shipping container type setup.

And then even recently, we've started activating laundromats in really small communities like Toowoomba and Dalby, where we actually have people in Orange Sky shirts, go down, set up a shift for a couple of hours and then just get people from the community who might be struggling or work with local service providers to bring people in. So, for us, it's about really expanding that reach and supporting people with laundry as the magnet or showers as the magnet, but then more importantly, that community connection and conversation. 

In terms of growth, it was really organic in the first instance and since in the last couple of years we've tried to flip that to be really intentional with what we do as well because I think it makes sense when you start in Brisbane to expand to Sydney and Melbourne and Perth and Adelaide, but then how do you start looking at those smaller communities that really need Orange Sky support? 

And then also the biggest growth we've seen in the last few years has been our remote First Nations work, and so that's slightly different in the sense that we have a local partnership with people who provide employees for us to use on our vans, and we use the van as a health outreach and economic wellbeing support tool as well. So, we've now got trucks in 13 communities, three in Queensland, five in the NT, and then five over in WA as well, and so that is a real growth engine, and in terms of reconciliation, First Nations health equity, like, there's so much work that we can be doing to help, and laundry, although maybe abstract, has a big impact on things like Scabies and Trachoma and Rheumatic heart disease, which in pretty epidemic proportions in those communities. 

So, for us it's been about, hey, we've got this model, it can help people in New Zealand or in remote communities. How do we really replicate that and bring it to as many people as possible and at the same time make as efficient as possible an organization that can keep scaling as we grow as well?

Rebecca Archer
Just fantastic. I bet you could never have imagined that you'd be at this point when everything started back in July 2014.

Lucas Patchett 
No, it's definitely been a wild ride, and I think my mum helped us write our first business plan because we didn't actually do one for about twelve months and then she was like, by the year two, we'll raise a million dollars and we'll put 15 bands on the road or something, and Nic and I were like, that's never going to happen. And then I think we hit 50 or 60 per cent above both of those targets in the second year, which just set us on this trajectory for continuing on and enabled us to get a bit more bold and visionary with what we're doing as well.

Rebecca Archer
And I believe that you're in the thick of a personal challenge at the moment to do with Orange Sky. What can you tell me about that?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, so every year one of our big fundraising campaigns we run in September is called the Sudsy Challenge, and so, in homage to Sudsy, our first van, and also Jordan, who I mentioned, we actually took us three days to wash his clothes for the first time. 

So, every September we invite corporates and schools and anyone who wants to get involved to wear the same clothes for three days. You get sent a bright orange shirt, which I'm currently wearing, and you wear the same clothes for three days, start lots of conversations, but also raise funds for the work that we do. 

And so, we found it's been awesome engagement with lots of different groups who get involved. I'm in day three this year, I decided to challenge myself because it's my fifth year doing it, or fifth year we've done it as an organization, and so, I decided to challenge myself and also add no showering to the list, which on day three I'm slightly regretting that after a long run this morning, and a shirt that doesn't breathe too well. So, I'm locked away in a little office here, which is probably a good thing for everyone at our place, but yeah, it's a sort of fun way for people to get involved, to start conversations and to destigmatise a bit around homelessness as well.

Rebecca Archer
And also, how much are you going to appreciate that shower when it happens?

Lucas Patchett 
Exactly, and it's a reminder of things we too all take for granted and even being out and shift last night, it rained in Brisbane last night, so it's a small sacrifice I can make once a year.

Rebecca Archer
And just finally Lucas, what's next for Orange Sky?

Lucas Patchett 
We turn ten next year, which is a big milestone for us in terms of how we've grown, how we continue to mature as an organisation. For us in the next twelve months, though, we're really focused on continuing to grow, so we know there's a lot more work to do in metro and regional communities in terms of where we have existing assets, but also, we want to play some new assets. So, we're doing some growth very soon into Central Queensland and then I'm also in some regional spots in New South Wales and Victoria. So that's a big focus for us still – growth in the remote space. We've unfortunately, or fortunately got a big list of communities that really want Orange Sky to come to support their communities with some of those challenges I mentioned before. So, we’ll add a number of new locations into remote services in the upcoming year, and it's really about continuing to bring more volunteers on board, bring more people on board to support that response to some of those massive changes in demand, and as we turn ten, we want to, I think, level up how we respond and are as an organisation in terms of our maturity of how we deliver services, how we can actually work more and better with different service providers or agencies that might be.

And as we then look to the next five years into what that could look like, because coming to the end of our sort of first five-year strategy, which is a really grown-up thing we did four years ago, so that's a good chance to say, we’ve been able to achieve a fair bit. And so, what can the next five years look like as well? So, all those things will come together, hopefully in the next twelve to 18 months as we start to look even further ahead and wrap up that strategy, which was to impact 40,000 people by or in 2025.

Rebecca Archer
Well, Lucas, thank you so much for your time today. How can we continue to follow you beyond the podcast episode and perhaps get involved?

Lucas Patchett 
Yeah, absolutely. So, Orange Sky is on across all socials, so jump on there and check us out. You can find more information about the Sudsy challenge. 

If you want to find more in-depth information about Orange Sky, jump on the website orangesky.org au. There you can find information about volunteering, about donating, about getting your companies or organisations involved in lots of different parts of what we do. 

Ultimately, Orange Sky is powered by the community, for the community. So, we've got volunteers, we've got supporters who make it happen, and we've got people who trust us with their only possessions in the world as well. And without that beautiful ecosystem of things all clicking together, we can't do what we do.

So, everyone's welcome to be part of that community.

Rebecca Archer
If you liked this podcast and would like to hear more remarkable stories, you can find, like and subscribe to The Remarkables podcast by Grant Thornton Australia on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Leave us a review or ideas on who you’d like to hear from next. I’m Rebecca Archer – thank you for listening.

The Remarkables

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