Warming Trend

Empowerment Plan hires the homeless to make coats that transform into sleeping bags

Rachel Hutterson is bright, poised, and polite. But for several months last year, the 20-year-old Detroiter was also homeless and living at an emergency shelter.

She had been living with her mother when Hutterson lost her job; then her mother was evicted. “It was my last resort,” Hutterson says. “The shelter was very frustrating. … You’re living with people you don’t know, and just the area — there was a lot of drug dealing.”

Hutterson’s story took a happy turn in November. She moved into an apartment with help from Southwest Solutions and, crucially, got a job with the Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit that employs homeless women to make weather-resistant coats that transform into sleeping bags.

The Empowerment Plan is the project of 24-year-old Veronika Scott (pictured below right), a product-design graduate of the College for Creative Studies. The nonprofit organization sprang from a 2010 course assignment to design a humanitarian item. She decided to help the homeless and began spending three evenings a week at Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO) in Detroit.

Veronika Scott portrait by Boswell Hardwick

“My first night there, [a staff member] who had his arm in a splint from breaking up a fight the day before took me into a room with 30 or 40 [residents] and turned off the TV,” Scott says. “All you could hear was swearing.

“That first time, I got 10 people to talk to me,” Scott adds. “I kept on going, three nights a week for five months, and my idea came out of that research. I was broke and living with my grandparents. I grew up in poverty and could understand the dehumanizing aspect.”

During visits to Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Scott noticed residents were wearing multiple layers corded or taped together. Blankets, coats, and sleeping bags went quickly when available.

In a nearby playground, Scott saw a makeshift home built from a tarp and clothing. “The area is just ridiculously violent,” she says. “The biggest question [I had] was, ‘Why would someone create something for themselves that’s being offered 20 feet away for free?’ It kind of clicked. … No one wants to be dependent on other people. We tend to forget that when we talk about charity.

“The coat came from seeing people creating stuff out of nothing,” she adds.

The first coat took about 80 hours to make, and it was “hideous,” Scott says. “I didn’t know how to sew; it was made of some horrendous materials.”

She solicited feedback from NSO residents. By the time she was on her third version, people started re-questing the coats. She approached Imre Molnar, provost at CCS, for funding.

Molnar then steered her toward Mark Valade, CEO of Carhartt, the apparel and work wear company.

“At our first meeting, I was very impressed with the project and to the extent that it could help people,” Valade wrote in an email. “After we spent about an hour together, I knew Carhartt was on board to help support Veronika’s core needs.”

Indeed, Valade and Carhartt became the Empowerment Plan’s “parent figure,” Scott says, providing funding, equipment, and guidance.

After meeting Valade, Scott made more coats. Her sewing skills didn’t improve much, and she realized she needed help. And when a COTS resident angrily told her the homeless needed jobs much more than they needed coats, “that really solidified everything,” she says.

Right photograph by Brittany Thomasson

In 2011, Carhartt shipped her industrial sewing machines, entrepreneur Phil Cooley gave her space in the Ponyride building in Corktown, and by the time she had graduated, the Empowerment Plan was hiring women from COTS to sew coats.

Scott had no background in business or social work. That ignorance came in handy. “There are so many things I didn’t know and that I’m kind of glad I didn’t know,” she says. “I surrounded myself with people who knew way more about this stuff. At the same time, I went into the roughest areas. … I was very innocent and naïve.”

The Empowerment Plan has been showered with national attention; it’s been featured on CNN and in Marie Claire and Forbes magazines. In 2012, Scott received the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, which honors Americans younger than 40 who are committed to public service.

The Empowerment Plan employs around a dozen seamstresses, nearly all mothers, who produce about 500 coats a month. The organization provides extensive training. The garments are distributed to organizations nationwide, with at least half going to Detroit’s homeless.

Hutterson, who plans to start college this spring, says her job offers a chance to build her future and to give back to others.

“I like helping people,” she says. “I know how it feels not have to heat, not have water.”

Scott is adding classes to the organization’s offerings, including 3-D modeling and HTML coding, and provides workers access to microloans.

“We’re becoming an educational platform to teach parents coming out of shelters these skills and how to be employed,” she says. “They get paid to learn, and we help them get stable.

“When we hire someone, we say, ‘This is your clean slate,’ ” she adds. “You can make whatever you want out of it.”