Revolutionary Coat Gives Warmth – And Jobs – to the Homeless Women of Detroit

“I never expected to be in a shelter having a baby. Never.”

Jessica West lost her job after becoming pregnant, so she and her family headed to Detroit where they hoped to stay with family. However, family wasn’t able to support her family of four either. Before long, West and her children were living in their car and eventually staying in a homeless shelter. That’s where she met Veronika Scott, and her life turned around.

While attending Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, Scott had an assignment to make something that would fill a need within the community. She designed a coat for the homeless that could convert to a sleeping bag, protecting them from harsh Michigan winters. But when she visited a homeless shelter with her sleeping bag coat, a woman told Scott: “We don’t need coats, we need jobs.”

Scott created The Empowerment Plan, which hires formerly homeless women (currently more than 20) from shelters to make the coats and work in shipping for this expanding organization. Jessica West was one of those women.

“It was empowering,” West told Upworthy. “Very empowering to be around a group of women that knew my struggle.”

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The coat’s design allows it to expand and function as a sleeping bag, helping the wearers get through harsh winters. | Photo: YouTube

Currently, these previously homeless women are working as seamstresses, making coats that are serving the homeless in 37 states, six Canadian provinces, and around the world. Since the project began in 2011, The Empowerment Plan has produced more than 9,000 coats. Another 6,500 will be produced this year alone, with each coat taking three and a half hours and $100 to make. For each 1,000 coats distributed, 14 lives can be saved and healthcare costs can be reduced by $58,800 annually due to decreased hypothermia.

It isn’t just about the coats, though.

By hiring single parents, The Empowerment Plan believes it can effect long-term change Detroit. “The coat, of course, is necessary given the cold weather, but it’s just a short term solution,” said Cassis Coravos, communications and projects manager with The Empowerment Plan. “But employing the people who would need those coats, you’re helping them and employing single parents also helps their children.”

Scott told Upworthy that the goal is to help their employees get back on their feet.

“The ultimate goal for everybody we employ here is to help them get to the point of stability that they want in their lives,” Scott said, “This isn’t about us saying ‘Oh, we know better than you. Oh, we’re in a better situation than you so we know what you need.’ No, you need to tell us or start figuring out what it is that you want to get to.”

For each 1,000 coats distributed, 14 lives can be saved and healthcare costs can be reduced by $58,800 annually due to decreased hypothermia

These employees also attend events such as resumé and career building workshops. “Whatever [skills] they need to become more independent,” Scott said, “and to be proud of their accomplishments, and to be proud of themselves.”

Coravos stressed that anyone can become homeless with just a few unfortunate turns.

“There isn’t one type of person that is homeless,” she said, “and it shouldn’t define a person.” Because everyone needs a support system to achieve stability in their lives, “we’re here to be that support system, to help them stabilize their lives.” You can read a few of their stories on The Empowerment Plan’s website.

Now that West is back on her feet, she is looking forward to returning to school and getting a job with an organization that will allow her to pay it forward. Scott told Upworthy that she can see West growing into a new role within the company due to her drive and determination.

“For me,” West said, “being one of those people, basically out on the street, it’s like I’m giving back to another me.”

Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.