How A 21-Year-Old Design Student's Sleeping-Bag Coat Could Break The Cycle Of Homelessness

As a design student in Detroit, Veronika Scott was keenly aware of the increasing numbers of homeless people suffering deeply during the relentless winters. At the tender age of 21, she created The Detroit Empowerment Plan not to solve homelessness, but to provide much-needed warmth to the city's 20,000 street dwellers.

From Scott's blog:

This is my story about the humanitarian project called The Empowerment Plan. Meet the re-designed coat: Element S. It is self-heated, waterproof, and transforms into a sleeping bag at night. It is made by a group of homeless women who are paid minimum wage, fed and housed while creating these coats made for those living on the streets. The focus is on the humanitarian system to create jobs for those that desire them and coats for those that need them at no cost. The goal is to empower, employ, educate, and instill pride. The importance is not with the product but with the people.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Scott about her design-driven, sustainable, self-empowerment model for a segment of the population that needs it most.

Jody Turner: What inspired you and how did you feel empowered to create such an amazing product and give back project?

Veronika Scott: What inspired the empowerment plan was a school project. I am a product design student at the College for Creative Studies. I was working in studio class and a humanitarian group came in to sponsor our studio and really became a catalyst. They said to "design to fill a need" and from there I realized that as a college student, I had ramen and a roof over my head, so my needs were being met. From there I reached out to the homeless community, which in Detroit has a pretty large number of people, an estimated 20,000 individuals living on the street. I spent three days a week, every week, for five months working in a homeless shelter downtown. The people there became an integral part of the entire design, they were there every step of the way and tested all four prototypes. When the semester ended the project did not; it couldn't because I didn't feel it was over. I continued the project not just because I was passionate about it but because actual people needed, wanted, and desired it. I realized I had to take it to the next level and make it a system. 

How has it changed and evolved from the original spark or inspiration?

In the beginning the empowerment plan was just about the coat. The coat that transformed from a heat-trapping system during the day into a self-heated, waterproof sleeping bag at night. But I realized that it was no use just coming up with the product without coming up with a way to get the product to the people who needed it. After spending so much time designing it with people who needed it, I just had to figure out a way that it could permanently benefit the community. I could produce some coats by myself but I really wanted to reach out to people who needed jobs. Now the importance of the project lies not within the product, but within the people who are involved and affected by this system. Once I finished designing the product or getting a good idea what I wanted it to be, I had to evolve it into a system and business. Which is something pretty foreign to a design student who doesn't deal that often in numbers and spreadsheets.

How have you gotten this far this fast?

I have gotten this far with the empowerment plan within the last 10 months because of the help I received from others. There's really no other way to describe it. I surrounded myself with people who are far more intelligent than me, who are skilled at what they do, and know things that I do not. It is because of this that I've been able to find out the unknowns with the daunting things that as a design student, I didn't know how to do. Something that really took us to the next level was the publicity we received in the infancy of the project. The initial funding and support we received because of this media attention got us up and running. We were able to pay homeless women to learn, and employ them to produce the coats.

What I would suggest to young designers with a personal passion or vision they want to move forward is that when people or funders or employers tell you no and tell you why, take notes! If they're nice enough to be specific and tell you those exact reasons why you won't succeed with them at this time, then it gives you something to tackle and work on for later. I experienced this with this project along the way and it helped the project grow and evolve in very realistic ways.

If you could have anything, what would you want to carry your project forward?

If I could have anything to move this project forward it would be a building. We could make it into something that if done right, would be a way to break the homeless cycle. Homeless people become trapped in a vicious cycle. They lose their job, then their home, and end up on the streets from 6 months to 20 years. If they get their paperwork together and manage to get a slot in a shelter they can only be there for two years. In those two years they have to get their lives together, get sober, get a job, create a savings, and find a new place to live or they end up right back on the streets. The Empowerment Plan aims to break that cycle, by giving homeless women jobs while in the shelter, so they can earn money, find a place to live, and gain back their independence for themselves and their family. What we would hope to do with this building is to create a transition between the shelter and the unknown. We would create low-income housing and a manufacturing plant capable of handling the capacity of The Empowerment Plan production. This would give homeless women the opportunity to live in a safe environment for themselves and their children, that is their own. 

Learn more about Veronika Scott and The Detroit Empowerment Plan.

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