Transforming Homelessness, One Coat at a Time
Veronika Scott’s Empowerment Plan finds success in providing a path out of homelessness
September 20, 2018
By Elizabeth List, Philanthropic Advisor
When Veronika Scott designed a coat that converts into a sleeping bag for Detroit’s homeless population as part of a college class project, she wasn’t planning to start a nonprofit devoted to helping families out of generational poverty. At age 22, Scott founded The Empowerment Plan, an organization that hires homeless mothers from local shelters and provides them with training and full-time employment to make the coats so that they can earn a stable income, find secure housing and regain their independence.
On any given night in the United States, over half a million people are homeless. Some of them sleep in shelters, others on the streets. Roughly one-quarter are children. Seattle is in the midst of a homeless crisis, with more than 12,000 unsheltered individuals. While we have seen progress, the issue can still feel overwhelming. Governments and the private sector have tried to tackle the problem of homelessness on many levels, but comprehensive solutions have proven elusive, despite billions spent over time. One thing we do know is that the issue cannot be solved in a silo. We have to find strength in partnerships and collaborative efforts, and learn from success where we see it.
Scott’s innovative approach is one of those successes, and she shared the story of her Empowerment Plan with Seattle Foundation partners on September 13.
Scott was taking an industrial design class with an assignment to create a product to “fill an actual need” in her community. Scott took to the issue of homelessness and began spending time at a nearby warming center, where she created the design for the EMPWR coat, which converts to an over-the-shoulder bag when not in use. Staying out of the cold during a Detroit winter is a matter of life or death, and warming centers provide a brief respite from freezing temperatures on the street. While conducting her research, Scott was confronted by a homeless woman who was furious about being offered a coat when what she really needed was a job. That moment shaped Scott’s inspiring journey to becoming a nonprofit founder, applying innovative business practices to help others.
Employees work for the Empowerment Plan for an average of two years before graduating to other jobs. Forty percent of their paid time is spent in support programming such as GED classes, money management and counseling, helping to transform an overlooked population that may lack core job skills into a skilled workforce. The Empowerment Plan partners with other nonprofits to deliver these services.
“We know what we do really well, and we rely on other organizations to do what they do really well,” said Scott, who is 29. ”Why reinvent the wheel when we can join forces and create a true wrap-around model for the people we serve?”
The Empowerment Plan has also taken a partnership approach to funding its work. Sponsors, ranging from companies and celebrities like Carhartt, the New England Patriots and Chance the Rapper, have funded coats for those in need.
The organization has pulled 60 individuals from homelessness and serves as a high-impact, workforce development model that’s attracting attention from around the globe. The nonprofit recently expanded into a 21,000 square foot facility in Detroit where they offer holistic support services including housing, childcare and transportation to help employees transition into stable jobs in high growth industries. Every person they have employed has moved out of the shelter within six weeks, and not one has fallen back into homelessness.
It costs $125 to sponsor one of the water-resistant sleeping bag coats. More than 30,000 EMPWR coats have been distributed to homeless individuals in all 50 states and 16 countries. Scott is now seeking funding to expand the model in other cities.
Scott’s passion for making real change and the success of her approach is a ray of hope for a problem that can often seem insurmountable. Fortunately, we are seeing real momentum around this issue. New, regional efforts like One Table are taking an inclusive approach in finding long-term solutions to the root causes of homelessness. Pearl Jam’s Home Shows effort brought together over 160 businesses, philanthropic partners and individuals to raise more than $11 million to address the crisis. Seattle Foundation will continue to create opportunities to convene around urgent issues, and to provide learning opportunities with national thoughts leaders like Veronika Scott.
Women and girls,