Group That Employs Homeless To Make Coats For People On Streets Eyes Retail Arm To Create More Jobs

03/17/2015 03:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2015

DETROIT (AP) — Veronika Scott simply wanted to get an "A'' on her product design project. And she did — with an idea that has changed her life and those of countless others. Now, the coat she created that can transform into a sleeping bag is providing warmth to homeless people and jobs for many who used to be so themselves.

Scott, 25, built a nonprofit, the Empowerment Plan, which employs and trains homeless single parents to manufacture the coats that were her project for a class at Detroit's College for Creative Studies four years ago. She believed the coat could help the city's sizable homeless population during the brutal winters.

the empowerment plan
Veronika Scott demonstrates how to roll up her sleeping bag coat to people at a homeless shelter.

"If I get stuck out in the cold, I can stay warm," said Timothy Harrington, 34, who recently received one at a shelter in the northern suburb of Pontiac. "(Now) I've got something to sleep in, something comfortable."

Scott employs 19 women as full-time seamstresses and one man, who works in shipping and inventory.

"Homelessness is not a defining characteristic. It is not a permanent state of being," said Scott, who's looking to hire additional seamstresses to manufacture even more coats as interest in the product grows.

Arnetta Smith, one of the longest-tenured seamstresses, had been homeless for more than a year and had lost her job and car when she met Scott at a Detroit shelter.

"I'm independent now. I pay my own bills. I have a vehicle. I don't rely on the state for help anymore," said Smith, 38, who said she also helps support her son, a college student.

It costs $100 to sponsor one of the water-resistant and self-heating coats, which are distributed locally and also shipped across North America. The Empowerment Plan hopes to produce 6,500 coats this year. It made 4,500 a year ago.

"We get thousands of requests every year from people that want to purchase it for themselves — everybody from hunting/camping/fishing to doomsday prepping," said Scott, who would like to start a retail arm as part of an effort to help the organization become sustainable. It currently relies on donations from corporations, civic groups and individuals.

"If we have a whole arm that's based on producing a retail product, that is even more jobs," Scott said.

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