Sleeping Bag Coat for the Homeless Finds Fans in the Fashion World

A few years ago, Veronika Scott, now 23, set up a coat manufacturing business in a graffiti-covered building in an old Irish manufacturing neighborhood of Detroit. She had a few sewing machines and a drive to help the homeless.

She wanted to make a coat that transforms into a sleeping bag, originally intended just for Detroit’s homeless. But when she presented it at Aspen Fashion Week a year ago, some in the audience asked where they could get their own coats.

Since late 2010, Scott and her employees — 10 formerly homeless women who moved into housing only after they started working for Scott’s nonprofit company, called The Empowerment Plan, have made more than 1,000 of the coats, which have been distributed for free to the homeless nationwide — mostly by nonprofits in Detroit and Ohio but also in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Aspen and Philadelphia. This year, she plans to make four times that amount.

“Everybody told me that my business was going to fail — not because of who I was giving my product to but because of who I was hiring,” Scott said. “They said that these homeless women will never make more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — you cannot rely on them for anything. And I know my ladies enjoy proving everybody wrong.”

It started as a class project: a teacher at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit tasked Scott and her classmates with creating a product that would fill a need rather than something faddish. And in Detroit, Scott said, taking on homelessness made sense.

“Once you start talking to people, no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re in the public schools or you’re on the streets, you are constantly faced with the homeless epidemic.”

So Scott visited a homeless shelter, where many people just out of prison would rotate in and out every eight hours, sleeping in chairs and watching television under the florescent lights. Her first day, Scott showed up intending to interview the homeless there, asking what sort of product she could design that they could use.

“I remember coming in with sticky notes and a disposable camera and pens and notepad, and I was ready to go,” Scott said, adding that when someone switched the TV off for her, “everybody started swearing at me.”

But Scott went back, three nights a week, every week for more than three months, talking to the homeless, designing a coat. “I had so many (school) friends who would come with me for a night and never come back again.”

The final design was a coat that transformed into a waterproof sleeping bag. Scott used three fabrics: a lining donated by Detroit outerwear company Carhartt, a hollow-fiber insulation material produced by 3M and a material called Tyvek, which keeps out water. After the first winter, the homeless in Detroit gave feedback, saying the Tyvek wasn’t as durable as it should be, so Scott replaced it with a different material.

Carhartt CEO Mark Valade met with Scott just before she opened her first workshop and donated the sewing machines in addition to the lining.

Scott then interviewed job applicants from several area homeless shelters and transitional homes. None of them, including Scott, had ever sewn before, but they got the hang of it and started making the coats.

Some news organizations covered her project, which brought in donations that enabled Scott to pay herself and her first three employees, and covered the cost of a couple hundred coats.

Elisha Carpenter, a 37-year-old mother of three and one of Scott’s original employees, said she was able to pay for housing after getting the job and appreciated the opportunity Scott gave her.

“What I really like most about the job is the sincerity of Ms. Scott, because she reaches into the cesspool of homelessness and transitional housing and treatment, and she’s steadily pulling people out. … She tries to find that extra diamond in the rough,” Carpenter said. “So it’s really a blessing and honor to see somebody who’s not being a predator on the homeless or using them for their own game.”

Last year, a San Francisco investor gave Scott about a year’s worth of funding, and this year, Scott has raised an additional $300,000 so far toward the goal of $700,000. Investors include Sara Blakely, the founder of the Spanx undergarments company.

And what about those Aspenites who wanted the coats for themselves? Scott is working on funding a for-profit sister company to design coats for the retail market. She intends to train the homeless to work there as well. The price of the retail coat will incorporate the cost of making a coat for the homeless.

The coats cost about $55 each, and Scott and her team make about 300 a month. They’re hoping to ramp up production to make 600 a month by year’s end.

“We can make a coat in an hour and a half — we’re going to be able to make it faster very soon — and we can stand up in a market and prove that we can do these things and be competitive,” said Scott. “I think we’re going to show a lot of people: you think it’s outdated to do manufacturing in your neighborhood, but I think it’s something that we have to do in the future, where it’s sustainable, where you invest in people, where they’re not interchangeable parts.”

Slide show by David Pelcyger. The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs.