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College Student Finds Innovative Way to Keep Homeless Warm—and Get Them Jobs

Kathy Schiffer - published on 12/11/14

A coat that doubles as a sleeping bag was not enough, so Veronika Scott created jobs.

The streets of Detroit are cold and barren this time of year.  For the more than 35,000 homeless in southeastern Michigan—many living in cardboard boxes beneath bridge abutments or sleeping in doorways or abandoned buildings, huddled against the wind—a December cold spell can mean frostbite or even death.

With the plight of the homeless in mind, 19-year-old Veronika Scott set out to find a solution.  An industrial-design student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, Scott had been asked by her design instructor to create something that would “fill a social need.”  Veronika’s idea was to create something warm to protect the city’s homeless—a coat that could convert into a sleeping bag.  

For five months, Scott visited the Neighborhood Service Organization, a local homeless shelter, consulting with residents to create the prototype of a heat-trapping jacket that could be easily transformed into a warm, waterproof sleeping bag.  At the end of the semester, she continued to refine her pattern—changing the fabric, the fit, the style to meet the needs of the people she hoped to help.  “I became known as the crazy coat lady,” she said.

But the project didn’t end there.  Scott was visiting a local homeless shelter, distributing coats, when a resident shouted at her.  “We don’t need coats,” screamed the woman.  “Coats are pointless.  We need jobs!”   

Scott took the woman’s words to heart; and she began to teach homeless women to sew.  Her first “office” was a room in the homeless shelter, but her new company continued to grow.  With support from the clothing company Carharrt—which donated sewing machines and fabric, in addition to a cash grant—and other companies, Scott founded The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that hires homeless women, mothers who wanted to provide a home for their children, to sew the coats.  The coats produced in Veronika’s manufacturing facility are then made available to homeless people at no cost to them. The Empowerment Plan’s mission statement explains:

We believe in giving second chances to those who want it, and providing warmth to those who need it.

Each of Scott’s coats/sleeping bags consists of three layers:  a water-resistant outside shell; an insulation layer that is either Thinsulate or recycled car scrap donated by General Motors; and a quilted, water-resistant inner liner.  A coat by day, the garment becomes a sleeping bag by night simply by opening a pocket that’s velcroed up in the back.  And when it’s not being worn, it converts into an easy-to-carry shoulder bag.  

In her first two years of business, Veronika was able to produce 250 coats, all of which were distributed to Detroit’s homeless population.  In 2015, with funding from local and national businesses and from a successful fundraiser, The Empowerment Plan will distribute 1,000 coats.  As the business has grown, she’s gotten requests for coats from across the United States and even globally.  

Veronika has received many honors for her innovative project to guard Detroit’s homeless population against the dangers of freezing weather.  She’s been recognized  by Forbes Magazine and was invited to speak at their annual summit.  In 2011, she was recognized by the Industrial Design Society of America and was awarded the IDSA: IDEA Gold Award.  In 2012, the John F. Kennedy Library presented Scott with the JFK New Frontier Award.  In 2013, Crain’s Detroit Business included Scott on their list of “Twenty in their 20’s”.

Asked in an interview what she hoped would be her legacy, Scott stumbled.  She’s so young, she noted, to be thinking about her legacy.  Finally, she said, “I hope I can continue the idea of giving people a chance, rather than just saying it. People in prison say that if they do their time, they’ll be able to start their lives over when they get out; and it’s not true. We are very quick to judge and push people away. I want to give people a chance without judging them by what they’ve been through or what they were raised in.”

Kathy Schiffer is a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.  

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