Empowerment Plan makes coats for homeless
Scrolling through archived Tumblr posts in her second-floor office, Empowerment Plan founder Veronika Scott smiles at photos of volunteers stripping floors and power washing ceilings.
“It’s really funny to look back on it and see what it was. Technically where we’re sitting now is where that table used to be,” she says, pointing to her Mac. There’s also now 22 women hovered over white industrial sewing machines, laser-focused behind safety glasses.
It’s been five years since Scott, 26, moved into the former print studio.
It took six months of remodeling before production could start on Scott’s famous coat that turns into a sleeping bag for the homeless. Fast-forward to today, and she’s planning to move her cohort of formerly homeless seamstresses to a larger space in Detroit.
“It’s the right time,” she says. “We’re just so big. It’s like we could continue to take over this entire floor, and it still wouldn’t be enough room.”
In 2010, Scott was a College for Creative Studies student. A product design class prompted her to create something that “fills a need” in the community.
The overwhelming homeless population — with over 22,000 homeless people in Detroit at the time — seemed like a good start.
She decided to design an insulated, waterproof sleeping bag coat to protect people from the elements if they couldn’t get a spot in a shelter. It would be “a coat that wasn’t worn by 15 to 20 people before they got it,” she says. “It wasn’t somebody else’s trash.”
Scott traveled to shelters, seeking feedback on her prototype. On the streets, she became known as “The Coat Lady.” One day after leaving a shelter, a woman came out, shouting at her.
“We don’t need coats. We need jobs.”
The woman was right. Instead of just designing a coat, she’d employ the people who would wear the coat.
Scott started with a few seamstresses manufacturing coats at a shelter.
Around this time, Slow’s Bar BQ owner Phillip Cooley met Scott and she told him about her ambition to build an empire called the Empowerment Plan that would employ parents from local shelters to sew the EMPWR coat.
“It was an informal conversation, but I kept it in the back of my mind because I loved (the idea) so much,” Cooley says.
Over the past five years, the nonprofit has grown to 22 full-time seamstresses who have produced over 15,000 coats for people in 30 states and seven countries. The story has been featured in local media to the New York Times. This year, Scott was named a “CNN Hero.”
Visitors have included Madonna, Martha Stewart and Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu. Pop singer Michael Bolton even gave a private performance.
“He sang to the ladies, and their hearts just like melted,” says Cooley’s wife Kate Bordine, a Ponyride co-founder. “It was so good. All these special little moments happen.”
Lady Johnson, whose legal name is Michelle Johnson, was hired in December, says the Empowerment Plan is “a blessing.”
Before then, Johnson, 41, says she struggled to procure a home and “get in a stable setting.” After a few interviews, The Empowerment Plan granted her the last table in the room.
“I got a whole new family of ladies and sisters,” she says.“It’s been awesome, ever since Day One.”
While hours are the typical 9 to 5, the women attend two hours of daily programming, which could include meditation, a financial literacy or GED class.
Through donors, sponsors and grants, the homeless don’t pay a penny for the $100 coat. Soon, Scott wants to create a consumer-friendly version to help generate revenue and hire more women.
Ramping up production from the current rate of 35 coats a day will be more feasible in the 13,000 square feet Scott says she hopes to rent sometime this year.
“The people that we employ is our No. 1,” Scott says. “The coat will always be kinda second priority because helping people get to a financially stable point is our goal.”
“They’re ready to move on,” says Cooley, like a proud father sending his child off to college. “They’re basically going to be moving into a building that’s half the size of Ponyride. They’re such a magical story.”
Employees: 22 seamstresses
Founder: Veronika Scott