By Danielle Krolewicz
The Empowerment Plan began as a challenge in a college classroom. Now it is a nonprofit that manufactures coats for the homeless—and employs the formerly homeless to do so.
The EMPWR coat folds out to include a sleeping bag, and can fold up into a shoulder bag. Photo credit: Maddie Toro, courtesy of the Empowerment Plan.
In 2010, when Veronika Scott was a product design student at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit, she was presented with an assignment: create a product that fulfills an actual need for society. Scott began thinking about people experiencing homelessness, and what she could create to serve their needs. Around 16,000 people are homeless in Detroit, with 2,100 in shelters and 193 unsheltered, according to the city’s 2016 Point-In-Time survey. In February, low temperatures for Detroit average 20 degrees, but can often drop below the teens at night with the wind chill.
Scott decided to develop a coat that turns into a sleeping bag. While conducting research for the coat at a local shelter, a woman told Scott that she wasn’t solving homelessness because the thing people needed were jobs, not coats. Scott took this feedback to heart and created the Empowerment Plan as a response, employing women experiencing homelessness to produce the coats and giving them on-the-job training and skills to do so.
The EMPWR coat is built to last in all seasons: the material is made of water-resistant Corder fabric from Carhartt, and up-cycled automotive insulation from General Motors—both Detroit-based companies that donate the materials. In the winter it functions as a coat with a bottom that unfolds into a sleeping bag. During warmer months it can be folded up into a one shoulder bag.
An employee sews an EMPWR coat. Photo credit: Brian Kelly, courtesy of the Empowerment Plan.“We want people to have a garment that can instill a sense of pride—it’s not just someone’s hand-me-down,” said Cassie Coravos, communication and projects manager for the Empowerment Plan.
The nonprofit works with local organizations and shelters in the area for distribution. Coalition On Temporary Shelter (COTS), a family-only emergency shelter and a community partner from the beginning, is where the Empowerment Plan recruits most new employees. According to Coravos, all seamstresses at the Empowerment Plan have exited the shelter and are no longer homeless.
“Everyone we hire, we hire out of shelters, and we work quickly to get housed. Our programs manager works individually with people to get them into a home when they come on board,” explained Coravos. That includes getting the home furnished, and figuring out the logistics of transportation and day care. “We work with them to get all those things in place that keep you from getting and keeping a job.”
“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate their partnership,” said Frankie Piccirilli, chief development officer of COTS, about the shelter’s relationship with the Empowerment Plan. “It’s not just a job, it’s a place where they are absolutely cared for and looked after.”
Since 2011, the Empowerment Plan has produced more than 20,000 EMPWR coats, which have shipped to 48 different states, seven Canadian provinces, and even Australia. Thirty-nine previously homeless people have gained employment as seamstresses on the production team, with 25 currently employed. Some seamstresses have moved up within the company, taking on roles as production specialists assisting with managing production on the floor. Other seamstresses have successfully moved on to other businesses such as home health care, construction, and starting their own businesses, according to Coravos.
“Since we’ve started, we’ve grown a lot,” Coravos said. “We’d like to double our workforce in the future, and move into a larger space.” Right now the entire company operates out of a co-working warehouse space, Ponyride, near downtown Detroit.
In Colorado, EMPWR coats have been shipped to individual purchasers in cities along the Front Range from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins—and as far east as Kiowa. Most of the coats produced are sponsored by individuals who then distribute them to people living on the streets. The goal of the Empowerment Plan, however, is more than expanding production and shipment. They aim to be a model for companies in other cities to adapt similar business practices.
The Empowerment Plan’s Detroit workspace. Photo credit: Gus Schmiege, courtesy of the Empowerment Plan.“We hope that beyond just working with people we can get others to think about homelessness differently. People often have a stereotype in mind of what homelessness looks like, but people are just people,” said Coravos.
The barriers to employment for people experiencing homelessness and poverty are numerous: education, childcare, transportation, and lack of housing to name a few. Programs at the Empowerment Plan address all of these barriers.
“We hope that by showing people what we’re doing we can get them to rethink their hiring processes,” said Coravos. “Instead of just writing people off because someone hasn’t had a stable job in however long, we hope employers will want to figure out why that is.”
Employees at the Empowerment Plan earn full-time wages from 9-5 Monday through Friday, and are compensated for that time regardless of whether it is spent sewing, attending a class, meeting with a social worker, or at an employee lunch. According to Coravos, half of the team attends GED or college classes two days a week, with professional development and financial literacy classes alternating weekly.
“If we’re going to keep people from becoming homeless again, we need to help build them up,” Piccirilli said. And the Empowerment Plan is doing just that. ■
Donors can visit the Empowerment Plans “gift registry” and donate to a specific area of need, including $50 toward food cards, $100 for a seamstress toolbox or coat, or as much as $500 toward childcare expenses, housing, education, or transportation funds for employees. All donations directly support the unique programs in place.