During the Sept. 21 “Empowerment Thru Employment” presentation, Veronika Scott, CEO of Detroit non-profit The Empowerment Plan passionately battled misconceptions about homelessness. Her company, which hires individuals living in homeless shelters to make sleeping bag coats to be distributed to homeless people, emphasizes the importance of pride, independence and helping people help themselves. Hosted by the Days-Massolo Center, “Empowerment Thru Employment” was the second event of this semester’s “Media and Movement” series exploring the role of technology in social justice.
Scott began the talk by asking the crowd assembled in the Red Pit whether they had ever been to Detroit. Laughing when only a few people raised their hands, she said, “I’m going to make it sound like the worst place in the world. But it’s my favorite place in the world, it’s my home, and I wouldn’t do this anywhere else.”
Scott went on to describe the endemic nature of homelessness in Detroit: of the approximately 20,000 homeless people in the city, there are only enough shelter beds for 1,900. The Empowerment Plan began as an assignment to “design something to fulfill actual need” when Scott was a student at the College for Creative Studies. Along with a group of classmates, Scott visited a homeless shelter nicknamed “Hell,” a one-story building surrounded by barbed wire in which people could sit on a chair and watch TV or sleep with their belongings on their laps for eight hours. The next time Scott visited, none of her classmates showed up. Scott talked about the fact that her parents suffered from drug addictions and that her experiences growing up helped her empathize with the people she met at the shelters. “If it could happen to my parents, it could happen to anyone,” she said.
Spending time with people in homeless shelters, Scott saw that “everyone was motivated by pride and wanting independence instead of having to rely on the whims of others for when to eat and where to sleep.” The coats, she said, were less about physical need than the emotional need to wear something that did not look like it was falling apart. More importantly, Scott’s plan would provide homeless individuals with what they really wanted: jobs and an opportunity to move out of shelters into permanent homes. That year, Scott learned to sew from her mother over spring break. “It took me over 80 hours to build the first prototype out of recycled materials, and it weighed 23 pounds,” Scott said, laughing. “I took it to the shelter and it was like a kid in preschool with one of those hideous glitter and macaroni projects. And the parents say ‘oh it’s beautiful, let’s hang that up somewhere nobody will ever see it.’”
She went on to build prototype after prototype and eventually moved away from the recycled materials idea. Scott spent so much time in homeless shelters and surrounding neighborhoods that she earned the nickname “crazy coat lady” Scott described the process of drawing up her first business plan and eventually gaining the support of outerwear company Carhartt, which garnered press attention. “In that first year we were completely funded by the PayPal button on my blog,” Scott said.
In the three years since founding in 2012, The Empowerment Plan has provided employment to 30 men and women, none of whom knew how to sew before being trained. Over 10,000 coats have been distributed to homeless individuals across 29 states and four Canadian provinces. The Empowerment Plan has impacted 75 children and all employees have permanently moved out of the homeless shelter. “The best part of what I do is the people. I realized that I needed to hire parents, people who would come in to work every day not just to make money but to put food on the table and provide for their children,” Scott said. “I have amazingly powerful, driven people on my team who have been through a lot.”
Too often, Scott said, people’s reactions to homelessness are either rooted in blame and discrimination or else in a misguided desire to save people. “It’s so insulting to come into a community and assume you know better than they what they need. Be there to listen and learn. Know that you know nothing,” Scott said. She has received hate mail for hiring homeless adults and often faces condescension and doubt when people hear about her company for the first time.
“People come in thinking ‘I am better than you because I’m not in the same situation as you,’” she said. “The coats are the Band-Aid, hiring is the most important part. What people actually want and need is the job.”