Blog: Veronika Scott

A motor home for the homeless comes with sleeves and a zipper, thanks to a Detroit inventor and a cadre of formerly homeless seamstresses. Veronika Scott, founder of The Empowerment Plan, maker of a combo coat-shelter, discusses how a school project morphed into a sustainable manufacturing career.

How Coat-Shelters Cut Homelessness

For those of you that may not know, The Empowerment Plan is a humanitarian program which provides funds for previously homeless women to learn industrial sewing and manufacturing, and in turn employs them full time to produce self-heated, water-resistant sleeping bag coats for homeless individuals on the streets. This business is really a school project gone awry; it all started as a product design studio class at the College for Creative Studies. After months of developing this product for the class, I had begun to realize that I wasn't really designing for a tangible need, I was trying to solve an emotional one.

What effect would the coat have on its own? I was just locking myself in my basement and sewing them...and I'm really bad at sewing. No one would want them anyway. So, with the help of Cass Community Social Services, I was able to provide what really helps to end homelessness, creating jobs. When I say that this was a school project gone awry, it really was. As a student it didn't sink in that while I was creating jobs for other people, I was creating a job for myself.  I kept pushing the project further and further because I figured that I had nothing to lose and since I was already a broke, twenty-year-old college student living with my grandparents, I figured what is the worst that could happen? If I failed, I would still have a college degree at the end of it all. But see, that's what I think is so great about young entrepreneurs: the lack of fear, some balls, and a bit of naivete that is able to get them so far and so fast. And all of this you can find plenty of here in Detroit.

We've come a long way in a year, from a school project gone awry to a full-fledged career upon graduating from college. We've grown from a small concept in a small space at Cass Community Social Services to the beginning of a whole manufacturing floor located in a building in Corktown. PonyRide, which is where The Empowerment Plan has relocated, is a building owned by Phil Cooley. With the move to PonyRide, Annis, Elisha, and Demetria (our seamstresses) have become a part of the community we have created within the space. After such uncertainty and inequality, they now have a chance to gain back their independence within a safe and stable working environment.

The creation of this environment has helped to foster and support the infancy of our company, but has also given us a chance to scale it in the near future. With the right help, we have the ability and capacity to employ full-time 12 women from shelters. After starting this company as a non-profit, we would like to be a sustainable manufacturing facility. We need to rely more upon ourselves rather than just the donations of others. We are a non-profit with a product, one that can be offered to the public to help our cause, and we want to be able to help and support the other non-profit organizations who have helped us. In order to do this we will be selling the coats to the public in order to fund the ones going out to the streets.

It's good to know that through the many hurdles we will face, there is a young, vibrant, and supportive group of people at PonyRide who surround us. Phil has created a space in which artists, collaborators, and creators can come together and work within a collective environment. He created PonyRide to show that in an economic crisis or downfall, there can be a positive impact. As young artists and designers, this is an opportunity for us to create the jobs we've always wanted, and to work in an environment that fosters and supports all the creative endeavours we want. There is such an eclectic group of individuals that it's easy to see why Detroit is becoming the "Wild West of creativity."  And while Detroit is a rough environment, we as individuals come from all over and even within the city, with an unbiased perspective and the mentality that hard work and perseverance will pay off. There is an openness not with just the city itself but within the communities themselves, and even more so with the individuals who have created these communities.

Many people asked why the business is called The Empowerment Plan. Is it because of the coats? While the coats are a powerful part of our business, our name comes from the larger core issues surrounding homelessness. The name comes from the women we employ and the direct way we affect not only their lives, but their children's lives.

In the end, we can give individuals coats, and we can give them all they need to survive. But it is their choice whether or not to use them. We realize that the coat only gives so much to people when there is a larger system around them of shelters, health care facilities that either need support or they are corrupt, or don't exist for those who need their services. It is because of the struggle of the system as a whole that homelessness exists. We need to invest in care for individuals that wouldn't receive it otherwise. I'm sad over the loss of human life and the lack of care for human life, but then I'm more angry. Angry at the failure within the system that allowed for this situation to happen. I tell these stories of extreme situations of people dying on the streets. I'm not looking for pity or sorrow, I want people to get as angry about it as I am. To be furious at how unfair it is, situations and conditions that destroy people's lives and that most of us have such a privileged fallback.

If something happens to someone like myself or others reading this post, we take for granted just how privileged we are. I believe that America has a very skewed view of what privilege really is. Privilege to most people isn't a giant TV, or cable channels, the newest electronics, or the most fashionable clothing. Privilege to most of the people I've begun to work with is being able to pay for their child's doctor bill, a roof over their head, and a safe environment for themselves and their families.

The biggest part for these individuals is knowing that they can rely on what they have, i.e being able to wake up and go to a job in the morning and a home to come back to at night, and that they can afford everything in between that life may throw at them. Think to yourself, if you were able to live on a day-to-day basis, being comfortable and warm. You as the reader think about all of the things that you have: friends, family, what you drive, where you live, and what you eat. Now imagine tomorrow that everything you tried failed. And if you can think of at least one person who would help you, you are privileged.