The Empowerment Plan founder Veronika Scott shares how she conceived the EMPWR coat and her model for beating homelessness in Detroit.
By Eden Lichterman
Photography by Viviana Pernot
When Veronika Scott was a junior at the College for Creative Studies majoring in industrial design, she was charged with a daunting task: Design a product to fill a need. As a native Detroiter with a family history of displacement, Scott focused her design on Detroit’s homeless community and created the EMPWR coat, a water-resistant down jacket that doubles as a sleeping bag and tote.
Throughout the remainder of college, Scott, along with three homeless employees, continued making and distributing coats from a utility closet in a Detroit shelter. After graduating in January 2012, Scott moved the organization to Ponyride, a coworking space in Detroit, and officially founded The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit that employs homeless individuals to manufacture EMPWR coats and provides support services to get them back on their feet.
This past February, Scott, 29, moved her offices and work space to a 21,000-square-foot warehouse near Detroit’s West Village. While Scott successfully runs the organization today, she faced homelessness as a child. “Both of my parents have been unemployed for decades and struggle with poverty and addiction,” she says.
Scott adds displaced children often face discrimination based on their family’s living situation. “You’re treated as if you’re kind of worthless by extension. As if you’re bound and doomed to repeat the same mistakes (as your parents) by default,” she says.
Yet, a place of residence doesn’t dictate that person’s intelligence and drive, Scott continues. “We hear a lot of, ‘all homeless people are lazy,’ ” she says. “We know that’s not true because every single person we’ve employed has been able to learn how to sew.”
Since its inception, The Empowerment Plan has provided full-time employment to 60 homeless people, focusing on single mothers. “(Mothers are) not just there for the paycheck; they’re there because they want a better life and a future for their children,” Scott says. She adds employing homeless mothers helps break the cycle of generations being raised in shelters.
All employees have moved out of shelters within six weeks of employment and typically move on to other careers after two years. The team has produced nearly 30,000 coats over the past six years, which have been distributed in all 50 states and 12 countries. Employees are paid $12 an hour. During the workday, they spend 60 percent of their time manufacturing coats and the remaining 40 percent on personal development, such as GED classes and driver’s education.
“They’re really big on education,” says Detroiter Takecia Jackson, an Empowerment Plan seamstress of four years and mother of two children. “I was able to go for further (sewing) training besides the technique we do on these coats.”
Within the first couple months of her employment at The Empowerment Plan, Jackson moved from the Coalition on Temporary Shelter in Detroit into her own apartment, paid off past driving tickets, obtained her license and bought a car.
She says she feels grateful to have a place to go every day. “I wake up and I have a job,” she says. “I may not have a dollar today, but I know I have one coming.”
The seamstresses construct each coat in an hour and a half. “It looks like a regular coat by day, and it has what we call a ‘foot bag’ or what looks like a giant pocket that comes out of the back that unfolds, and it can be worn,” Scott says. “That’s how it comes together as a sleeping bag, (and) that foot bag can be detached and used as a tote bag.”
The organization receives fabric donations from brands like Carhartt, Patagonia and Polartec. For the coat insulation, workers use recycled automotive insulation from General Motors and recycled plastic bottles from the Urban Renaissance Center in Flint. Every year, the New England Patriots sponsor hundreds of coats to distribute in Boston, and Chance the Rapper previously sponsored 1,000 coats to give out in Chicago. A new contributor, the Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation, donated $25,000 this year, which equates to 200 coats — one for every Spanx employee.
Recalling how she thought of the idea for the coat, Scott cites an instance from her college years.
To conduct research for the project, Scott spent three days a week for five months volunteering at the Neighborhood Service Organization, a homeless shelter in Detroit. She remembers walking past a playground 20 feet from the building and seeing two people living beneath clothing and tarps. A couple weeks later, the playground burned to the ground in a turf war, and the two people survived the flames only to die a few years later from exposure to the elements, she says.
“I always wondered: Why would you create something for yourself like a shelter out of a playground when somebody is trying to give it to you for free 20 feet away?” Scott asks. Responding to her own question, Scott adds, “When we talk about nonprofit work and we talk about charity, we don’t talk about some of the things like dignity and respect and the idea of being self-reliant.”
Most people, regardless of living situation, want to take care of themselves and their families, Scott says. By creating an appealing garment that functions as a sleeping bag, Scott both restores the dignity of homeless individuals who may typically wear old or tarnished clothes, and gives them and their loved ones shelter.
Scott’s brainchild started with the coat, and she understands the need for the garment among homeless communities. “But at the same time, (the coat) is a Band-Aid for a systemic issue,” she says. “And what really has the impact is hiring the people that would need it in the first place.”
While many organizations provide homeless individuals with services and classes, it’s rare that those people get paid to take them. “In order to address poverty, we need to talk about money,” Scott says. “Training people how to be employed is part of it, but also giving the individuals an opportunity to earn income is so critical.”
Scott also provides case management and clinical social work services. When employees join the team, they meet with a case manager who helps with personal matters, such as apartment-hunting, child custody and driving violations. The social worker helps employees and their families address emotional and mental needs.
“We act as just a piece of the puzzle,” Scott says. “A piece of the system where we connect people with other services.” By providing a source of income and classes like financial health and wellness, Scott fosters a model that works. Not a single employee has relapsed into homelessness.
While Jackson feels content in her job, she knows The Empowerment Plan will help her take her next steps one day. “I don’t know what the future for me holds here,” she says. “I just know anything that I decide, they will back me up 100 percent.”
And that is exactly Scott’s mission. “Our goal is to get individuals to a financially, emotionally and physically stable place so that … they can go on to the next job,” Scott says. “And sewing is just a vehicle for us to do that.”
Sponsor A Coat
It costs $125 to sponsor a coat, and each coat distributed saves $1,500 in emergency services. The Empowerment Plan website includes other donation options, such as food cards, seamstress toolboxes, education and housing.
Visit theempowermentplanshop.squarespace.com/donate to donate.