If it weren’t for Veronika Scott, Eljeana Lee would still be one of the more than 20,000 homeless men and women in the streets of Detroit who face the freezing cold every year without shelter or warmth.
Lee never thought she would be homeless. In 2006, she said her life changed drastically. Faster than she could say onomatopoeia, Lee went from being a social worker teaching life skills to living on the streets.
“I was homeless, out of work, and struggling to raise my two children,” she said. “I lost everything, including the car we slept in from time to time. Desperate, I called the 1-800-AShelter number and found a shelter for 90 days stay, and for the next eight years my children and I went from place to place.”
On a cold winter’s day in February at the Coalition On Temporary Shelter, Lee’s prayers were answered when she applied for a job at The Empowerment Plan.
“The case manager at the time, Ms. Brown, suggested that I fill out an application,” Lee said. “I thought to myself, ‘What do I have to lose? I lost everything.’ Well, I was called in for an interview and was hired.”
Many single-parent homeless women just like Lee are employed by The Empowerment Plan to make jackets designed for the homeless by Scott, the founder. Scott’s coat isn’t any ordinary coat. It unfolds into a nice, warm sleeping bag.
The designer drew up her coat in industrial design class at the College of Creative Studies for a project to develop a product people in Detroit need. All stitched up, Scott showed her final project to homeless men and woman at COTS to see if they would use it. One woman at the shelter saw it and said they needed more than garments—she said they needed jobs.
“The coat isn’t going to keep them out this situation,” Erika George, the TEP communication director, said.
She was right—and it motivated “the crazy coat lady” to unfold her coat into a non-profit organization in 2010 to empower, educate, and employ homeless women to create an impactful humanitarian product while fostering independence, according to the nonprofit’s website.
In four short years, Scott’s organization grew from a few women sewing a couple of jackets per day at the Ponyride warehouse in Corktown, into a well-oiled (sewing) machine of 16 women stitching thousands of jackets per year. But Scott wants to do more than hire homeless women; she wants to improve their lives.
“We’re in the early stage of moving to better programs by offering more seminars and classes to prepare them for jobs by making them good candidates,” George said.
Going to work every weekday at TEP puts a big smile on everyone’s face. Who wouldn’t want to go to work and make a difference in homeless people’s lives in the community? George said she loves working at the nonprofit and is inspired by every seamstress.
“It’s a humbling experience to work here,” she said. “They have smiles on their face, and it really puts life into perspective for me. It’s an inspiration for me to keep doing that. You really couldn’t pick better people if you tried. It’s an awesome experience.”
Lee loves working at TEP, too. She said she wouldn’t trade for the world the love, care, and support she has enjoyed there.
“My life has changed in such a positive way,” she said. “I’m happy that I have a place to go, a job that I’m passionate about, and great coworkers. I’ve gained so much support and care from The Empowerment Plan staff. Everyone is willing to help and sincerely cares for my wellbeing. I feel the love. My children are now happier and content. My daughter is an honor roll student at her school, and my son is doing well in school.”
When it is time leave to TEP, Lee wants to accomplish the dreams she imagined before she was homeless and keep in touch with everyone she has met and will meet.
“I plan to continue raising my children, write realistic fiction, teach life skills, continue my street ministry, personal train and eventually have a radio program,” Lee said. “I want to stay connected to all the wonderful women and men that I’ll meet along the way.”
Local companies are lending a hand to TEP. Dearborn-based apparel company Carhartt Inc. donated three industrial sewing machines for Lee and her fellow seamstresses. A local industrial fabric company, Fairway Products, improved the manufacturing process to make more jackets faster. And that’s not all: over 20 companies and foundations support Scott and TEP’s cause to warm homeless people during cold Michigan winters. Whether one person donates $100 or a company offers materials, George said every donation goes a long way toward helping those in need.
“Investors are a huge part of what we do,” she said. “Every donation makes a difference. We would not able to afford all of this if it wasn’t for investors.”
Word of TEP spread quickly from Detroit down to Houston, and New York to Los Angeles. In 2011, Scott was recognized by the Industrial Design Society of America and awarded the Gold Award. Scott was the youngest person in history to receive the JFK New Frontier Award by the John F. Kennedy Library in 2012. Then, in 2013, Scott was chosen as one of Crain’s Detroit Business “Twenty in their 20’s.”
Scott’s jacket is the next big thing in the streets. The latest and greatest design is made of a water- and air-resistant polyethylene top layer to keep the weather out and insulation made of old General Motors car scarp to keep warmth in. When on the move, it can fold up into a convenient shoulder bag with arm pockets for storing gloves and other belongings. But there’s always room for improvement, and TEP spends time to read comments and suggestions of how to improve the jacket.
“We do listen and use the feedback,” George said. “We are really trying to improve and update the design.”
If you would like to donate to TEP or comment on the jacket, please log on to their website or make it out to The Empowerment Plan, at 14101 Vermont St. Detroit, Mi., 48216.