Dozens of families have regained their independence through the nonprofit.
When Veronika Scott was studying industrial design at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies in 2010, one of her professors challenged his students to design something to “fill a need” in the struggling city.
Detroit and its residents certainly had plenty of shortcomings, from basic city services such as water and electricity, to a larger issues like the need for economic and community development.
Scott, a 21-year-old junior undergraduate at the time and a Detroit native, decided to focus on a problem she witnessed every day – the homeless population.
She knew she couldn’t immediately get all the homeless people off the streets, but realized that in a major manufacturing city like Detroit, she could make life a little less uncomfortable, and begin to instill hope in the more than 20,000 homeless folks living on the streets of the Motor City.
So, for her class project, Scott created a fully insulated, waterproof jacket that converted into a sleeping bag with an over-the-shoulder storage space.
Today Scott is the founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based organization that manufacturers her coat design and helps move single mothers from homeless shelters by hiring them to make the unique garments.
“It started off with me designing the coat for this class project and meeting the need of people that are displaced but cannot get into shelters where there is not enough capacity for them,” Scott said. “They end up being on the streets in extreme temperatures, so giving the product to those in need may not get them into the shelter they need, but it started with the coat and hiring the people that would need it in the first place.
“So, it was not just giving out these coats but completely disrupting that cycle of poverty.”
Since Scott established The Empowerment Plan as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in 2011, the organization has made more than 30,000 coats and distributed them in all 50 states, 10 Canadian Provinces and 18 other countries for disaster relief, refugee camps, or to anybody in critical need.
The organization’s work is personal for Scott. The now 29-year-old grew up in poverty, and both of her parents struggled with unemployment and addiction issues. “I felt uniquely equipped to kind of look at it and try to address some pretty systemic issues,” she said.
The Empowerment Plan’s workforce consists of low-income single parents who have managed to find living space in shelters across the city. The idea is to provide steady-income employment and other assistance, so these formerly homeless people can find affordable housing and become as independent as they can while remaking their lives — and provide a stable home environment for their children.
“We’ve employed over 60 people over the last six years and everybody we’ve employed has moved out of the shelters within the first four to six weeks of working with us and not a single person has ever fallen back into homelessness once we’ve hired them,” Scott said. “When people are supporting a coat, they are not just supporting a jacket and giving to somebody in need, but they are really supporting an individual on the job, really helping them to get their life to be where they want it to be.”
Financial support for The Empowerment Plan comes from corporations or individuals who sponsor a coat. A donation of $125 is required to sponsor the manufacturing of one coat.
“One of the things we’ve found, we’ve had a lot of corporate partners do this — from banks to the New England Patriots — that will sponsor large numbers of coats and that’s how we get a lot of revenue to support the people that we hire,” Scott said. “General Motors, Ford, Quicken Loans, they are all deeply involved in our work. They are on our board. They are really wonderful because they are such big players. And companies like Carhartt have also been big supporters so it is wonderful to have that kind of engagement even though we are a tiny organization. And we also have individuals who sponsor just one coat.”
In addition to financial backing, large manufacturers contribute the materials that are used to construct the coats. Carhartt and Patagonia donate clothing with discontinued colors, seconds, or dead socks. General Motors provides top-quality insulation that is used in making the shell or the lining of the coat.
Most of The Empowerment Plan team does all the sewing. When they are hired, they are trained to sew and completely manufacture what is known as the EMPWR coat.
“Our employees go through a pretty intensive interview process,” Scott said. “We ask what motivates them, what goals do they have for their future and how we can better help them.”
The Empowerment Plan takes pride in helping its employees get back on track. The organization’s programs manager helps workers get into stable housing, find affordable transportation and discounted day care. Everyone who is hired is required to take GED courses if they have not completed high school or received a GED.
The program also offers scholarships to those who would like to move on to higher education or a trade school, and even offers scholarships to use toward purchasing cars or homes.
“The people we hire are employed with us for about two years before moving on to other jobs” Scott said. “Our goal is to be a stepping stone and we do that by sewing. It gives them an opportunity to work, learn a new skill, study and get financially stable.”
The initial purpose of the EMPWR coat was to keep homeless people warm during what can be seemingly endless months of frigid Detroit wintertime weather. But the Empowerment Plan has evolved into more than putting a Band-Aid on an unhealable wound.
“When people are supporting a coat, they are not just supporting a jacket and giving to somebody in need, but they are really supporting an individual on the job, really helping them to get their life to be where they want it to be.” Veronika Scott, The Empowerment Plan
“It’s about warmth, but it is also something new, so that it is not somebody else’s hand-me-down where a lot of people get these garments that are almost not functional anymore,” Scott said. “We wanted to create something new that was made with all these repurposed materials, but at the same time was durable and you couldn’t tell based on what that person was wearing whether or not they were homeless.
“We believe self-esteem and confidence is just as important as any skill that we are helping to develop because confidence helps them achieve career goals and form healthy, happy relationships.”
There are currently 42 people in The Empowerment Plan program, and Scott said the nonprofit plans to hire an additional 11 or 12 people in the next few months. The goals is to hire hundreds of people in Detroit in the next two years and eventually scale to other cities.
An indication of The Empowerment Plan’s growth is the new manufacturing facility the organization moved into this year. The previous manufacturing home was a too-cozy 5,000-square-feet. This year, the production factory is housed in 21,000-square-feet of much needed space.
“I love my work. It is so fulfilling,” Scott said. “I think a lot of people like to throw millennials or younger people under the bus for things, but this generation cares a lot about work that gives back rather than just work that makes money.”