When you live on the street, a warm coat can save your life, especially during the bitter cold of winter.
That's why a Detroit nonprofit is offering homeless people a hefty utilitarian coat that not only provides warmth on freezing nights, but converts into a backpack and sleeping bag. But it's how these coats are made that makes them so special.
The Empowerment Plan doesn't just hand out the coats to those in need; the group employs homeless people, teaching them how to make the coats. The program gives them life skills and successfully gets them off the streets.
In the eight years since the program started, 35,000 coats have been distributed and 80 people have been hired — jobs that turned their lives around.
"Our biggest success metric to date is that of all the individuals we have hired, not one has returned to homelessness," Chief Development Officer Erika George tells MNN. "To be honest though, any time an employee moves out of the shelter, gets a car, passes a GED class, obtains another job, etc. we look at that as a huge success. We are creating lasting generational change."
Offering a coat and a job
The coat and the nonprofit are the brainchild of 29-year-old Veronika Scott.
While working on a college project where students were asked to design a product that addressed a community need, Scott looked at the idea of homelessness. Motivated by the people she met in an area shelter as well as those who were unable or unwilling to go to the shelter, she came up with the idea of a coat that would convert into a sleeping bag.
The idea was a hit, prompting many requests for the coat. But it wasn't until a homeless woman angrily approached her that she changed the focus of the project. The woman said she didn't want a coat; she wanted a job.
"The coat fulfills a great social need to those on the streets, but would not help remove them from the cycle of homelessness," George says. "A job, on the other hand, could."
After graduation, Scott hired a few woman from a local shelter to help manufacture the coats, and in early 2012, the Empowerment Plan launched.
"This project is very personal to Veronika as she was raised in an unstable home life," says George. "She created Empowerment Plan to give women the opportunity she wish her own mother had been given."
A high-quality product
Through business partnerships and individual sponsorships, the group has distributed coats in every state and in 20 other countries. It costs $125 to sponsor a coat, which pays for the materials and helps keep the group's team employed.
The group works with shelters and outreach programs to see where there is the greatest need for the coats. Police officers carry them in their cruisers to give away when they see people who could use them. People can also sponsor a coat for specific individuals.
The coats are intended to last for multiple seasons and the materials used include upcycled fabrics from companies such as Patagonia and GM. The coat has an additional element that transforms it into a sleeping bag, and the whole thing folds up to be worn as an over-the-shoulder bag.
"By making such a high-quality product, the hope is that when someone is seen walking down the street in one of the coats, no one will know they are homeless," the company's website explains.
Working and learning
Employees spend an average of two years in the program.
To find potential candidates, the organization holds informational sessions at shelters, attends job fairs and gets referrals from local partners. When hired, workers are paid for a 40-hour work week.
The workers are taught how to sew and assemble the coats, but they only spend about 60% of their time doing so. The other 40% of their day is spent learning. They are offered a wide range of classes including finances, driver's education, leadership training, nutrition, meditation and mindfulness, and high school equivalency courses.
"Everyone's story is so different, yet equally as powerful. We do not exist to tell someone what success should look like, but to support them in reaching a place of stability so they provide a better tomorrow for their children," says George. "Everyone we hire takes great pride in their work as they know how easy it is to be on the receiving end of the product.