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Helping Detroit's homeless with a multipurpose coat

Even though summer has just begun, I recently visited three women who were sewing coats in a big, old industrial building in Detroit. Their goal is to make 800 coats for the homeless this year.

This isn’t just any winter coat. While it looks like a super warm jacket with an oversized hood, there’s a little flap at the bottom for your feet. This coat can double as a sleeping bag. And when it’s hot, it can be folded up into an over the shoulder satchel.

The women making the coats are giving them away to the homeless. And they all know what that’s like, they were all homeless themselves.

One of the women is Annis Maxwell. She was in prison for six years and had no place to go when she got out in 2010.  She said being homeless is tough.

“Not being able to go to a house and put a key in the door, not being able to sit in your living room, not being able to say, ‘This is mine,’” Maxwell said.

Maxwell works alongside two other women who also make $10 an hour working nearly full time. Their boss is 22-year-old Veronika Scott. Scott is CEO and founder of what she calls, “The Empowerment Plan.” It’s a project she started two years ago when she was going to college in Detroit.

 “It was a school project gone awry is the best way to describe it,” she said. “I was a College of Creative Studies student studying product design and this was a project that really kind of threw us all for a loop. It was sponsored by a humanitarian design organization and they came in and said, ‘design to fill a need,’ and this is what came out of that class.”

Scott says she only hires ambitious homeless women. She wants to help stop the cycle of homelessness and offer opportunity for those who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance.

 “The goal of this project are these ladies,” Scott said.  “At the end of the day, our coat is more of a vehicle for these women and this community to learn a manufacturing skill that can create independence for them, something that could be a future career and create a diverse market of jobs because still there are very few unless you are creating it yourself.”

Maxwell says working for the Empowerment Plan has helped her achieve her ambitions.

“I feel I have set goals since I’ve been out of prison and I’ve accomplished all the goals that I’ve set,” Maxwell said.

But Maxwell says she does have one more goal, and that’s to go back to school in the fall. But that doesn’t mean she’ll stop making coats.

“So I’ll still be with the Empowerment Plan because I truly believe that she is on the rise to something great and I want to be a part of it. So I’m sticking and staying for as long as they’ll have me,” Maxwell says.

After working for the Empowerment Plan for 8 months, Maxwell is moving in to her own place for the first time in 8 years.

The Empowerment Plan is also looking to expand. Scott will be hiring four more homeless women later this month.

Emily Fox- Michigan Radio Newsroom

Vincent Duffy has been news director at Michigan Public since May 2007.
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