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Veronika Scott with an Empowerment Plan employee.
Veronika Scott with an Empowerment Plan employee.
The Empowerment Plan

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Coats that Double as Sleeping Bags Are Keeping the Homeless Warm This Winter

Even Chance the Rapper is getting in on these innovative designs

Winter is a particularly difficult time to be homeless. Temperatures dip into freezing territory, increasing the likelihood of hypothermia and death. In a year, 3.5 million people experience homelessness, according to estimates from the National Coalition for the Homeless, and shelters, which often suffer from overcrowding and other issues in the coldest months, simply cannot be the only answer. For some people suffering from homelessness, according to activists and members of the community, shelters aren’t even the preferred solution.

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But it is vitally important that people stay warm, and that is where a handful of new companies come in. These startups are innovating not only in novel designs for winter apparel, but in the ways they’re reaching out to those who can benefit from those designs.

The Empowerment Plan, founded by Veronika Scott, is one of the most important companies in the U.S. assisting the homeless community through outerwear. While studying at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, an in-class assignment charged Scott with creating a product that could service other people. She created a rudimentary version of the EMPWR coats; today, the coats are self-heating, shield the wearer from water, and can transform from a jacket into a sleeping bag.

An Empowerment Plan coat. Image: The Empowerment Plan

The name works in two way. Of course, the coat-sleeping bag hybrid allows a homeless person to avoid going to shelter to keep warm, but perhaps more interesting is the way they’re produced: the company employs homeless people to construct the garments.

The Empowerment Plan’s business and communications manager Cassie Coravos tells Racked, "There were people that were willingly choosing to stay outside across from a shelter…They had the need for independence and to not always go towards the shelter and be able to care of yourself. But [Scott] wanted to devise something that would be warm and provide those perks, but also have it be something that was well-made and to have them be able to take it with them and have a sense of pride in what they own."

Chance the Rapper recently teamed with The Empowerment Plan to distribute a number of the coats in his hometown of Chicago, where temperatures get dangerously low.

"Chance reached out to us saying he wanted to do something big, he wanted to bring a lot of coats to Chicago," Coravos says. "But he was really the one who spearheaded that and ran that campaign," she says. "He raised all the sponsorships, his team was the one making the connections in Chicago." (Chance did reach his goal of raising $100,000 and bringing 1,000 coats to Chicago.)

There were people that were willingly choosing to stay outside across from a shelter…They had the need for independence.

Amazingly, Scott was able to create the fully-functional coat design without any formal training in fashion design. "When she first made this it was her and a couple other seamstresses — her first employees were hired out of the shelter that she was originally getting feedback from — and they were set-up in a closet making the coats, but they didn’t have any process in terms of traditional manufacturing," Coravos says. "Veronika learned from her mom actually, she was working at her grandparent’s house and [her mom] was helping her out."Now, the design has evolved, thanks to support from companies like Carhartt and automobile company GM. Carhartt has long supplied the leftover pieces of fabric pre-cut that the Empowerment Plan uses for its outer shell. Meanwhile, GM provides the company with insulation used in cars which give the jacket its self-heating element.

The design also continues to evolve based on feedback from the community it’s serving. Coravos tells us that while recipients are always grateful, they also provide feedback on how the design of the coats can be improved. "We’re giving it to them, but also asking for feedback and telling them we want to make it better," she says. "They’re really receptive to that. We spoke with someone a week ago [who] had one of the initial versions and he had been there with someone getting a newer one. He gave us so much good feedback on how the design was good and how the changes we made have been working."

An Empowerment Plan sewer, up close. Image: The Empowerment Plan

Upcycling products is a key element to the success of these types of philanthropic efforts. While The Empowerment Plans uses GM’s insulator fabrics, a company in the Netherlands is giving the camping gear left behind at European music festivals a second life in its own coat.

The Sheltersuit has a lot in common with the EMPWR coat. Both coats are water-resistant, insulated, and double as sleeping bags. The Sheltersuit’s bottom portion zips on and off to let the wearer move seamlessly between the coat’s two functions.

These companies... go beyond providing for the homeless community with these coats.

Founder Bas Timmer was able to launch the company after gathering 500 abandoned sleeping bags at music festivals Solar and Lowlands, according to Fast Company. Timmer is a fashion designer by trade and was able to make the first 100 suits in his own space in the Netherlands. Now the company creates its suits from materials donated by a selection of European companies.

What’s uniquely touching about these companies is that they go beyond providing the homeless community with these coats, a laudable act in itself, to providing a greater opportunity to those they’re helping. Like The Empowerment Plan, Sheltersuit also makes sure to employ those in need. Timmer is dedicated to helping Syrian refugees through his company, employing those who had been tailors before they were forced to leave their homes. In addition to employing refugees, the company assists them through "assimilation courses," driving lessons, and even by helping them find homes.

Sheltersuit is also looking to take on a one-for-one model and let people purchase its coats. Timmer calls it like he sees it: "Hunters, fishermen, hipsters at festivals might buy them," he tells Fast Company.

The Empowerment Plan worksite. Image: The Empowerment Plan

Sleeping bag coats are an important innovation in this space, but there have been other innovations and unique ideas in this space. Detroit designer Michael Forbes, who was in the same class at the College for Creative Studies as The Empowerment Plan’s Scott, created an item called the Ulterior Survival Bag, or U.S.B.

The U.S.B. serves as both a pack and a boot. It was created in response to people who were without shoes, who were forced to wrap their feet in bags in the winter in the hopes of cutting down on frostbite and trench foot. However, the design didn’t catch on with investors like the EMPWR coat, so instead of relying on outside funding, Forbes created an apparel company named Anymile Clothing, a play on Detroit’s 8 Mile. Forbes hopes Anymile will one day will fund and sustain his U.S.B. design, he tells Racked.

A few companies have been able to stir together designers, activist rappers, modern technology, and generous corporations to create companies that are actually helping the homeless community survive the winters. On a lower-tech level, another inventive initiative involves people tying scarves and coats to lamp poles in small towns in England. This doubles as a way to raise awareness and donate a coat at the same time.

There is an endless number of ways to give back. Whether you’re learning to sew from your mom, collecting left behind sleeping bags, or tying up unwanted clothes, there are many methods to support a heart-warming and warmth-giving cause.

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