One person in every 42 people in the city of Detroit is homeless. Shelters are often overcrowded, overwhelmed and under-supported to provide support for every person in need. Too often those in need of even basic necessities, such as food and shelter, have to fend for themselves on the streets. This is reality for over 20,000 Detroiters who have become trapped in the cycle of homelessness.
Detroit’s automotive industry was ground zero for the economic downturn, with a terrible toll in jobs lost and homes foreclosed. The social safety net is tattered and stretched beyond its limits. Those who manage to get a slot in a shelter can only stay for two years, often not long enough to rebuild their lives and get a stable home, so they may end up back out on the streets.
Michigan winters are brutally cold. All members of Parvati Magazine’s editorial board have walked through Detroit in December and felt the biting chill. Being out there with no choice in the matter, no home and no place to warm up, is life-threatening, but this is what Detroit’s homeless population faces every winter.
Veronika Scott, a design student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, felt moved to do something about the situation. If she could not resolve homelessness, she could at least help to provide some much-needed warmth. As a class project, she designed the “Element S”, a waterproof, self-heated coat that transforms into a sleeping bag. She worked in a homeless shelter and consulted with homeless people to ensure the product met their needs. When her semester ended, she realized she did not want to stop, so she has continued under the name The Empowerment Plan.
The Empowerment Plan now employs homeless women, feeding and housing them, and teaching them sewing and business skills, to construct the Element S locally. It is given out for free to those who are living on the streets.
Scott recently told Fast Company, “I continued the project not just because I was passionate about it but because actual people needed, wanted, and desired it. I realized I had to take it to the next level and make it a system.”
Imre Molnar, a dean at the College for Creative Studies, told the New York Times in 2012 that “Veronika’s garment has great international ramifications. Her coat could be used by refugees or for disaster relief operations.” He added that the Red Cross has shown interest in the item.
It’s exciting and inspiring to see designers who see a need and take action to help others, both in the product and in the production chain. In this way, fashion designers and entrepreneurs can benefit the world with their creativity.