In a warehouse two miles from Detroit’s city center, nine seamstresses work eight hours a day to make rugged winter coats that will be given away.
The boss of this unusual operation is 24-year-old Veronika Scott, a graduate of the College for Creative Studies. The unique coat was a project for class. “We were given an assignment to design to fulfill actual needs, rather than design something for a trend or planned obsolescence,” Scott explained to America Tonight.
So Scott, then 21, turned to the city’s homeless shelters. Detroit has one of the highest homelessness rates in the country. In its 2012 survey, the Homeless Action Network of Detroit counted almost 20,000 homeless people – 32 percent of whom are homeless families. That’s one in every 42 residents.
Also, Detroit gets cold. In February, the average daily low temperature was 21 degrees.
Scott decided some heavy-duty garment would fulfill a need and fulfill her class requirements. She hand-sewed a prototype, and took it back to the homeless shelters for feedback.
“The reaction was, ‘This is a great idea, but it looks like a body bag,’” she said.
Scott tweaked the design, returning to the shelters for regular assessments. On one of Scott’s visits to a shelter, however, she got into an angry confrontation with a woman. “‘We don’t need coats. We don’t need coats,’” Scott says the woman screamed at her. “‘We need jobs.’”
“She was angry about it,” Scott said. “She was like, ‘I’m not going to let you get off the hook with creating a Band-Aid.’”
If she really wanted to fulfill the needs of the homeless, Scott realized, she had to find a way to help them out of homelessness. So she decided to hire them.
The crazy coat lady
It was around this time that Scott’s college dean introduced her to the CEO of Carhartt, the clothing company. They had an hour-long meeting, which went exceptionally well for a 21-year-old living in her grandmother’s basement.
“The next day I get calls from their plants in Tennessee and Kentucky and Mexico saying, ‘Hey, we have two tons worth of equipment, three industrial sewing machines, hundreds of yards of fabric, needles, thread, zippers, buckles, everything being shipped. And we have them for this home address, is that OK?’ They were all being shipping to my grandparent’s house on two freight trucks,” Scott remembered.
She got a surprise call from General Motors, too. The stuff inside the door panels that insulates and sound-dampens the whole car? They had heaps of scraps, which would make for pretty excellent insulation for a coat.
The final product is a transportable, water-resistant, heavy-duty winter coat that closes using Velcro, since buttons fall off and zippers jam. It has a sleeping bag that can be unfolded without even taking the coat off. And it’s big, allowing for layers of clothing or possessions to be kept underneath.
“I think this is what makes the coat different, the fact that I did the research with the people, with the community I was trying to reach,” Scott said. “And did it in such a way that by the end of those five months, that semester, I was known as the ‘crazy coat girl’ or the ‘crazy coat lady’ or the ‘crazy white coat girl.’ Like any mixture of those words, that was my street name.“
Building a factory
But Scott’s project wasn’t over at the end of the semester. It had bloomed into a nonprofit called The Empowerment Plan. The organization employs women who are currently or formerly homeless – all of whom are single mothers, desperate to work. None of them have any sewing experience.
“We bring them in, do a month of just basic, ‘You are sitting in front of a machine that is basically a car motor attached to a needle. I know it’s intimidating, let’s just get you comfortable with it,’” said Scott.
The women earn $8 to $12 an hour, depending on experience. Teia Sams, a 21-year-old mother of two, was living in a shelter, separated from her children, when a social worker told her about The Empowerment Plan.
“When I walked in and seen Veronica, I seen something different, ‘OK, this may be a possible good job,’” Sams told America Tonight. “So I filled out the application and I told her, ‘Don’t forget my face, because you’ll see me again.’”
Sams got the job. “When I walked in here, all I thought about were my kids. I’m going to have a job and I’m going to be able to get my kids back,” she said. “So that kept me excited.”
Within a few months, Sams moved out of the shelter and into her own apartment with her kids.
A couple of the seamstresses have been working at The Empowerment Plan for more than two years. Annis Maxwell had struggled with homelessness for a decade when she met Scott at a residential program for women in recovery from substance abuse. “The only way I’m leaving is for Ms. Scott… to roll me out to the curb in my sewing chair!” she’s quoted as saying on the nonprofit’s website.
The concept of helping yourself through helping others also turns out to be contagious. A health clinic in Kalamazoo, Mich. that serves the uninsured even got wind of Scott’s scheme, purchased 10 of her coats, and asked their employees to give them away to the local homeless. “That just seemed to change the whole day for those people,” clinic employee James Baley told the CBS-affiliate in west Michigan about the experience. “And it made me feel wonderfully warm.”
The Empowerment Plan had a goal of 4,000 coats this year for orders around the country. The sponsors have grown too, from just Carhartt and GM to the upscale Detroit watchmaker Shinola and The Michigan Women’s Foundation. Scott plans to turn the entire abandoned warehouse where they operate into a full-scale production facility, and hopes to help build an entire garment district in the city of Detroit.
She’s also tinkering around with new technology and wants to train the ladies in modeling software and 3-D printing. “We believe in giving second chances to those who want it,” the nonprofit’s motto goes, “and providing warmth to those who need it."