The Empowerment Plan: Doing More than Keeping Metro Detroiters Warm

By: Scott Davis | January 21, 2015

Have you ever pondered what it is like to be homeless? Chances are slim that answer is yes for those of us who have never known poverty. Not necessarily because we think we are above that, but more or less because we don’t think it would ever happen to us. Now, envision not having a warm place to sleep in this brutal Michigan winter. Unfortunately, it is all too much of a reality for many. Here is a cold hard fact: one in every 42 people in Detroit is homeless. Please, just take a minute to wrap your mind around that.

While this problem cannot be remedied in one day, there are places, groups and people making tremendous strides to decrease the astounding number of homeless individuals in the city. Perhaps the organization putting forth the most strategic effort is The Empowerment Plan. What this 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is doing is truly extraordinary.

The mission of TEP aims “to build a better life for those that have fallen into the cycle of homelessness.” How is that accomplished? Well, in a two-fold.

The humanitarian group manufactures coats. However, these are no ordinary coats—they also double as a sleeping bag at night and can be rolled up and worn as an over-the-shoulder bag when not in use. These coats are then given out to homeless folks. But here is the kicker: TEP also employs the homeless full-time and has them construct the coats.

“We provide a second chance to those who want it and warmth to those who need it,” Erika George, communications and projects manager at The Empowerment Plan, said.

Empowerment Plan Floor

(Photo provided by The Empowerment plan)

The initiative was started by Veronika Scott while she was a student at the College of Creative Studies. Scott was given a unique assignment: to design a product to fill an actual need, and little did she know the project would forever positively affect her life and the lives of countless others.

After immediately realizing she wanted to help the homeless, Scott’s initial idea was to create a product that a homeless person could call their own possession, while also keeping them warm. This is how the coat that is easily converted into a sleeping bag was born.

While Scott was asking for feedback on a prototype at a homeless shelter, a homeless woman angrily informed her that she didn’t need a coat, she needed a job. Scott took this statement to heart, and realized her coat was essentially a bandage for a much bigger problem. From this, she developed the idea to train and hire homeless single parents to manufacture the coats. Since then, the organization has been ever-evolving.

There aren’t many other organizations quite like TEP, but there have been a handful of cities and organizations around the United States that have contacted the Detroit-based nonprofit, looking to replicate the process and asking for help on how to approach it.

“There are other programs that provide onsite job training for the homeless, but our organization is unique, as we actually offer full-time employment and provide staff with the skills needed to be successful both professionally and personally,” George said. “Our program is also unique because of the product we make.”

To start, Scott only hired homeless single mothers, but she recently brought on a homeless single father. He was brought in as a production control coordinator. There are currently 19 women and one man employed through the initiative.

The employees really have been given a second chance through this life-changing experience. They are not only learning new skills, but also how to be self-sufficient again. Each team member recently completed a workshop on lean manufacturing as well. In addition to teaching the homeless skills in the workplace, TEP also goes above and beyond by making sure to take every necessary step possible to help the homeless employees get back on their feet.

“In addition to sewing and manufacturing, we offer team building and professionalism classes and work with each individual to help ensure they have the tools they need to succeed. We provide the resources to help them obtain safe and reliable transportation, budget their finances, find secure housing, etc.,” said George. “A handful of the women are also enrolled in college courses or are working toward their GED. We help each employee map out their goals and what it will take for them to achieve their goals.”

Empowerment Plan Floor 2

(Photo provided by The Empowerment Plan)

In terms of distribution of the coats, TEP works with a variety of other nonprofits and outreach organizations, both locally and throughout the country. On average, the seamstresses produce about 25 coats per day. In 2014, the team produced about 4,500 coats total. This year, the nonprofit estimates handing out 6,500 of them! Coats are handed out/shipped based on the requests received. As you can imagine, TEP receives quite a few requests in the winter.

There is no set timetable for the employees, as they can stay as long they would like. After a three-month long training period is completed, employees are then brought on full-time. However, some have been rejuvenated by the program and were able to find employment elsewhere.

“We have had a couple women move on beyond TEP at their own free will because they felt like they had gained the confidence they needed to pursue other opportunities and they wanted to allow someone else in a situation of homelessness to gain the second chance they were given,” George added.

All of the 19 women employed have been able to find secure housing since joining TEP, while the recently hired single father is in the process of finding a place.

TEP is looking to expand its coat into a retail version this year, using a buy one, give one model as a way to be a sustainable organization. George notes that the organization generates a lot of interests from all kinds of people, from hikers to “doomsday preppers.”

As previously mentioned, TEP is a nonprofit organization. A portion of its funding comes through donations. You can donate here. Your donation gives the gift of warmth to somebody in need.

This plan is a pioneer in the fight against homelessness and poverty. It is a first-class organization dedicated to doing good in a city that needs it most. If we had more entities like this, then without a doubt the fight will soon be won.