By Zoe Donaldson
As a product design student at Detroit's College for Creative Studies, Veronika Scott got a challenging -- and life-changing -- assignment: to create something that would fill a real need for the city. In Detroit, few issues are more pressing than homelessness, which affects about one of every 42 residents (including those who seek shelter in some 78,000 abandoned buildings throughout the city).
Scott set out to help tackle the problem and spent the next five months interviewing people who passed through a warming center, a rest stop for the homeless ("They go there to sit for several hours -- it's pretty much rock bottom," she says). One day she spotted two people living inside a nearby playground structure covered in clothes and tarps. The makeshift home sparked an idea for a heavy-duty coat that could be converted into a sleeping bag. "It lets people take care of themselves and feel independent," says Scott, 25. "Plus, 20 others haven't worn it; it's new and made for them."
In nearly three years, Scott's nonprofit, the Empowerment Plan, has manufactured more than 10,000 of the hybrid coats (now made with fabric donated by Carhartt). Equally impressive: All the coats produced in Scott's facility are sewn by 17 women who once lived on the streets or in homeless shelters themselves. "Everyone we've hired has been able to move out of the shelter system," Scott says. But with all the people she's met and helped, Scott has never forgotten one of her project's earliest fans, a man named PeeWee. "He was my spokesperson," she says. "He'd introduce me to people, saying, 'This is the coat lady; she makes coats. You want a coat? You can get one -- after me.'"