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The Empowerment Plan grows into Islandview warehouse

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The nonprofit makes coats for the homeless while providing training and jobs for Detroit’s homeless population

Photos by Robin Runyan

An idea born out of a class assignment at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) has grown not only into a nonprofit that helps Detroiters facing homelessness, but provides warmth through innovative coats to many throughout the world. Now, the Empowerment Plan has moved from its smaller digs in Ponyride to a large warehouse in Islandview, poised to nearly double the amount of people they employ.

Veronika Scott developed the idea for the coat while taking a class at CCS in 2010. The assignment was to design to fill a need. She worked at a warming center at MLK and 2nd for months developing a coat, which addressed an immediate need for the homeless population. When a woman yelled at her saying she didn’t need a coat, but needed a job, Scott started expanding the idea from more than a band-aid to something that could help people get out of the cycle of poverty.

The nonprofit, which started with three people making coats at Ponyride, now employs 35, with the intent to increase that number up to 60. The Empowerment Plan partners with other nonprofits and hires its workers from shelters for full-time employment. The group hires mostly women, and almost always individuals who have dependents. Employees spend about 60 percent of their paid workweek making coats; the other 40 percent of the time is spent with case workers, or programs like skills training, financial literacy, and GED prep. The goal is to get these individuals financially stable, ready for another job, and out of the cycle of homelessness.

The coat is made from materials donated from manufacturers—Carhartt, GM, Patagonia—and meant to withstand cold temperatures. It rolls up into a bag that can be carried, and can be used as a coat or sleeping bag. There’s also a bag inside that can be used to carry items.

A bag is located in the lining of the coat.

While the coat was first meant to address an immediate need in Detroit, it’s now distributed across the U.S. and in 16 countries. Scott says that it’s not only for those facing homelessness, it’s also used for disaster relief and refugee camps—anywhere someone might need warmth without a home.

The Empowerment Plan moved into a 21,000-square-foot space in Islandview, which gives them the room to grow even more. The landlord had created a shell of a building, which was then customized for the nonprofit. Skylights and lighting are new, along with the flooring. The building also has offices, a large kitchen and community room, in addition to a training room for skills programs.

A training room that had been used for yoga earlier in the day
A kitchen and community room
Empowerment Plan merchandise on display

Scott notes that the location is great for them: Butzel Community Center is right across the street, and Gleaners Food Bank and the Downtown Boxing Gym are close by.

The Empowerment Plan partners with other nonprofits locally and internationally to provide coats, but they’re still looking to strengthen partnerships for tech literacy and computer skills for their workers here in Detroit. Scott says that the people who work for them come from a variety of backgrounds—some have their Master’s degrees while others are working toward their GED—and they need to be able to help them all.

The warehouse allows the nonprofit to grow even more. They currently have a fundraising goal to raise $125,000 to help 1,000 more people in need. Here’s a look around the new space.