Designing an Ecosystem of the Good Life
Using Design to Help the Homeless, Self-heated Coat Doubles as a Sleeping Bag
By Veronika Scott
Issue 9 Fall 2011
Can design help break the cycle of homelessness? In the following article, Veronika Scott, the founder of the Empowerment Plan, tells us a story of how she did just that. Her educational environment allowed her to explore social issues in Detroit and through a strategic design solution, break the cycle of homelessness. Empowerment Plan is centered on the Element S Coat, which is self-heated, waterproof and turns into a sleeping bag. Through Veronika’s story we will discover the invisible human factors that went into her design solution, and we will witness a transformation of a community. Veronika’s academic environment provided a fertile ground for a design solution that truly creates a better life for homeless in Detroit.
I want you to imagine the coldest day you can ever remember, the biting wind chilling you to your core. Now imagine spending your whole day, from morning to night wandering endlessly though the city, with no home, no bed, and no warm cup of coffee at the end of the road.
This is reality for over 20,000 Detroiters. That means that 1 in every 42 people in the city are homeless. It is because of this, that the shelters you would turn to are too overwhelmed and under supported to take you. Others are left to the streets when all the mental hospitals shut down. When that happens people are forced to provide for themselves when they have nothing.
As art students we are taught to create and perfect, evolve and imagine. But what if one idea became the start of something revolutionary?
As an art student at The College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, I took a class that focused on creating consumer goods. Within the class I worked with other students to research, design, and create socially conscious goods that would seek to better society and contribute something more to communities rather than fill a market void. I was introduced to the idea, not only through the class, but also through Project Humanitarian also known as Project H. Project H is a humanitarian company that really helped to get the ball rolling with regard to the class’ idea of socially conscious goods. My professor at the time encouraged us to research within our group ways in which we could create goods that would “give back” to the community here in Detroit.
As a designer and as a person, you immediately think of yourself and what you need, in relation to others. I began to think about what, as a student and resident of Detroit, I needed to survive? Raman? That’s when I decided to reach out to the community of Detroit. The city itself has been an inspiration since I was very young, and when I began to attend school here I was reminded of why Detroit has been my home for so many years. People talk about the constant state of decay, the overwhelming amount of poverty, and the ever-growing fiscal debt of Detroit. It is easy for these people to pick Detroit apart, but what I do not hear from these people are ways in which they might help build the city up.
It is a shame because I think to myself, “hey, some of the greatest musicians have come out of Detroit!” I myself have become involved in Detroit’s underground culture of music, art, film, etc. Once you become a part of this city, its culture, its inspiration, its people, you begin to understand Detroit as sort of the “Wild West of Creativity.” Some of the biggest examples of this are The Power House Project, run by Mitch and Gena Cope, as well as of the Heidelburg Project, Tyree Guyton creator. In Detroit, you can take an idea and, if you are ambitious enough, you can create anything. Where else in the world can you take over city blocks?
So I began to research Project H and a way to “take over a city block” or to just give back goods that would better my community. I wanted to find out what my city needed. I knew based on my surroundings, the amount of homelessness. I knew I wanted to work with these particular individuals. I began talking to shelters and came across the Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO). On the streets it is known as Vietnam and serves as a warming station.
I knew the numbers and stats of the amount of homeless individuals, but was never fully aware of their situation. Even though some called it a naive move on my part as NSO is in one of the roughest parts of the city, I saw, first hand, that this was a place to begin tl learn about what this community needed.
At NSO one could go and sit in the warmth for eight hours a day. I watched as men and women would go through a metal detector. Although alcohol is not permitted on more than one occasion, individuals came in drunk or high. The NSO is different from a shelter as it is only a space for watching television and sitting in a chair and getting warm. There are no beds and no showers; it is a very raw space that simply provides comfort from the cold. On occasion, some organizations drop off already prepared food for those individuals who came for a bit of refuge.
Once inside the NSO, I met the Security/General Manager, Mr. S. With his linebacker demeanor, he introduced me to a not-so-friendly crowd. I wanted to express to this group of individuals my idea of wanting to do something that would give back to the community, of wanting to see what their needs were. Mostly, I wanted to talk to them. So I was straightforward, stating, “I need your help.” Needs are different for everyone, and what I wanted to know were the ins and outs of everyday for these individuals.
No one really understands what it is to be homeless, what it is to be living on the street day in and day out with no place to call your own. None of us really understand the lives of those who are homeless. I began in the men’s section, which is the larger of the two rooms, and I began to talk to the men, asking if any of them wanted to help. I only had eight men who volunteered. I immediately went to the women’s section, asking the same thing. A woman came up to me; she had no hair, deep, dry cracks in her skin and simply stated, “if you want to help us, turn our TV back on.” That was the first time anyone had spoken to me.
I sat down and begin to talk with the volunteers, giving them disposable cameras; I wanted to see what they saw. I wanted to know what their needs were, how each day was for them. Mostly I wanted to know what each of these individuals found important. Letting them know that I was going to be back the next day at eight o’clock in the morning, I set up a strict schedule, showing up at an exact time each day to talk with my volunteers.
My grandfather, a child psychologist for Detroit Public Schools, told me that this would be a good idea, a way to help them to trust me. He told me not to promise the world, they will think you are being false when you do that. No one is a superman, I should not go overboard. So, I came back three times a week, every week, for five months. It took months before anyone actually opened up to me, actually let me in. And once they did, the stories poured out about how they lose trust in people, about being homeless, and stories about everyday human life.
During my time at the NSO, I not only heard stories, but also, witnessed some instances of how people lose trust in others. Once, an Escalade rode by and the individuals inside the car threw dollar bills out of the window watching the homeless fight over them like a human dogfight. In another situation, Mr. S informed me that some non-homeless individuals would cheat homeless individuals out of their social security numbers, names, and birthdays by offering them a an inexpensive bottle of whiskey or cheap pack of cigarettes. In most cases, the homeless who would give up their identities to con artists, thought that these people were being kind. After hearing this story, I thought to myself, what have you gone through to think that someone stealing your identity is kind? What is your basis for comparison for cruelty?
The one thing that spurred the design of this coat was seeing an entire playground draped in clothes. It was covered in jeans and tee shirts; this place had become someone’s home. The shelter was one block away, and what shocked me was why someone would rather live outside in this makeshift living space than go into the shelter where they could be helped. I returned one week later to find that it had been burned down due to turf wars. I thought about why someone would live outside, why wouldn’t they go to the shelter, and then I realized that it was all about pride.
Basic human desire: everyone wants to provide for themselves and their families. It is instinctual to want to be independent. I noticed that pride was a huge factor the further I got into my research; that pride kept many of these individuals going, and they themselves were trying to make it on their own.
One of the most powerful and lasting things I discovered through my research was that there is a certain emotional need, which should be addressed and that I was not taught in a classroom.
Pride and the need to be self-reliant form a common thread among everyone and I think people are attached to self-reliance. These homeless men and women seek the same things as those who are not homeless. They want to obtain the things they need for themselves, by themselves; no matter if there is mental disability or not, pride will often rule the lives of these individuals. Sometimes taking free handouts is not something that these men and women want to do.
Throughout my research there was the idea of always being transient; in a way it is never “I live here,” but more of “I live here, right now.” These men and women are a part of society; they harbor the same emotional needs and wants that many of us do, and often this is overlooked. How unfortunate that many times when charity is being given, there is an aspect of gratitude that is wanted on some level. As if to say, “you should be grateful that I’m giving you the things that you need for free,” which should never be the case. This became my main reason for the design of the coat. I started out with the design being a coat/tent; I wanted it to meet the basic needs of these men and women. I wanted them to be able to be made by people who needed it, and it could be made in one’s size, shape, color, etc.
During my five months at NSO, and after seeing the playground home, I started playing around with the idea of heat and shelter. How could I design something that would trap heat, store it, and become a form of shelter as well? There were other designs out there but none of which seemed logical and in the long run would not hold up against the hostile winter. The one constant source of heat, no matter what, as long as you are living, is your own body heat. I began to brainstorm about how to make a coat that was high in design but not in price. Most of the coats out there that are sustainable are extremely high in price, but many of the people that need these types of coats cannot afford them.
I also knew that I wanted to make some type of clothing that would, not only trap body heat, but also could be used as shelter as well.
I learned to sew in the process of designing the coat and since I did not know how, I went to my mother (something I do not recommend to anyone who is reading this); as a result I spent 80 hours producing the first coat, (which I also do not recommend to anyone reading this). To give you an example this was how the first layer of the coat was made: I seam ripped five wool coats, sewed the pieces together, and then cut out the pattern from that. The inside layer went something like this: grocery store bags were stuffed in the big black trash bags to create insulation with a strip of billboard fabric (nylon) sewn onto the back. I then cut orange construction fencing strips across the chest area of the coat. This failed. But keep in mind this was the very first prototype. What everyone needs in the winter is a coat, but for those with no home, your coat is also your shelter.
The first one being kind of funny, I took it back to the NSO, just to get some feedback from the men and women there. Though they were oddly proud of me, they all agreed that it was a good idea, but the coat (which looked like a body bag) could use some work. Needless to say I had spent my spring break working on something that looked like a body bag, and no one at school had bothered to tell me. After that I went back to the drawing board and immediately started working on another one. This time, it only took me 60 hours. I continued to work on many other prototypes and near the end of semester, I shared the product with the Project H group and they loved it. They gave me the idea to use a DuPont product called Tyvek, a housing material used as a wind and water barrier. Based on the feedback I was given, and with one week of the semester left, I created a whole new coat. By the end of the semester, I had created three fully functioning coats. But still I felt like there was more to be done.
I had accepted an internship in New York, but while away I realized that I wanted to finish this project, I wanted to take on this mission that I had been so passionate about. So I came back to school and used the studio to figure out ways this idea could be integrated into the community. I had thought I would just pull people off the street and have them make their own. But this, I realized would not be possible. And, at this point, I had no idea what to do or where to begin, so I began to get re-acquainted with shelters and the community again. I recognized that if I couldn’t produce these coats the way I want by pulling them off the streets, I would need to hire people for production. Again, how could I make this happen?
I became more focused on ideas about how I was going to do this based on what I realized about cycles. So many of these individuals had lost homes, families, friends, etc. and if by some small chance, after living on the streets anywhere from six months to some twenty odd years, they got into a shelter, they were only there for ninety days. During the ninety days they have to get sober, find a job, save money, and find another place to live. The job market is scary for college kids let alone someone who has been on the streets for ten years and has no resume. What happens when the ninety days are up? Or, in the case of transitional housing, what happens when the two years are up? Most individuals can end up right back where they started.
After this second round of research, and after the cycle became clear, I began to understand that I can not solve the homeless epidemic, no one can.
My goal then became trying to help these individuals get out of the cycle. I wanted it to go further, I wanted to try and reach out at what the shelters deemed “the unreachable.”
These individuals (who were actually mostly male) were my main targets. They were the ones these coats were meant for, who because of pride or mental instability had refused shelter and the help that could come with it. This became the start of the Empowerment Plan.
It was this idea and a homemade prototype that landed me a meeting with the CEO of Carhartt, Mark Valae. The Dean of CCS, Imre Moloar, took an interest in my work and informed Mark Valae, who wanted to sit down with me to discuss my Empowerment Plan. I saw this as an opportunity to help Detroit, and the people and communities who make up this city, get some good press coverage. Again, so many good things are constantly coming out of Detroit, why look at only the bad things? Mark Valae provided me with the essentials: industrial sewing machines, Velcro, and of course yards of fabric. Next I joined forces with a non-profit shelter organization called Cass Community Social Services. They gave me a space in one of their warehouses.
The Empowerment Plan centers on the Element S Coat. It is self-heated, waterproof, and transforms into a sleeping bag at night. The coat is made by a group of homeless women who are being paid to learn and produce the coats for those living on the streets.
The focus is on designing a system to create jobs for those who desire them and coats for those who need them at no cost. The importance is not with the product but with the people.
This goes back to my wanting, not only, to help break a cycle, but also, to give back what is needed within the community.
The Empowerment Plan has two main goals: we want to employ homeless females within the city of Detroit, and we want to give the Element S Coats to individuals living on the streets. We strive to establish trust and communication with individuals deemed by the shelters as unreachable in the homeless community (the mentally impaired, etc). We want to teach sewing, manufacturing, and production skills to individuals who need jobs offering a sense of pride to the women who have been employed in the production of the coats.
We, at the Empowerment Plan, want to create a sustainable manufacturing system to help and employ homeless individuals. The women we have hired will be producing the Element S in a range of sizes from small to triple extra large in a variety of colors, and then these coats will be given to homeless individuals on the streets through existing organizations. We have finished the pilot stage of coat production and we have produced and distributed 25 coats made of Tyvek and Nylon to those who needed them. The Empowerment Plan is now set to become both a for-profit LLC, which we call “The Empowerment Group”, and a non-profit 501(c)(3). Having been given so much positive feedback and after trying out the production coat ourselves, it has exceeded our expectations in functionality.
Currently we are made up of one full-time seamstress Elisha, who has been paid full-time since day one. We plan on hiring and training two more homeless women to begin the production for the coming winter months. Throughout this summer, we have been scouting for funding to help run the non-profit section of the organization. In the coming months we will be working with multiple material companies in order to find alternatives to the current combination of Tyvek HomeWrap and Nylon. We want to ensure that we have the safest and most efficient combination so the coats can continue to be sustainable. Needless to say we will be doing quite a bit of experimentation. The excess coats made of Tyvek will be auctioned off in the coming year to raise awareness of the homeless epidemic. These coats are blank slates that can be easily modified by artists and designers to create something with powerful meaning. One of our main goals throughout this process will be to raise the funds for our future plans and creations.
Our goal is to produce eight hundred coats over the next year. Business and production operations are held at 1401 Vermont, a building in the heart of Detroit, with a focus on community activism and collaboration. 1401 was created by Phil Cooley and will also support many other businesses and creative aspirations, such as fashion designers, chefs, and large foundations. We are still joined with Cass Community Social Services, which has provided access to their shelter, Mom’s Place, in order to hire motivated, homeless woman. They provide multiple other programs including PATH, which is one of the many organizations that will distribute coats to those on the streets. The Empowerment Plan is also working to expand the reach of the Element S Coat around the globe. With the help of United Way and The Red Cross, we hope to widen our distribution for relief from future natural disasters and for cities in need of immediate shelter.
These first two years will focus on establishing The Empowerment Plan Non-Profit. It will consist of producing coats for homeless individuals as well as to aid relief efforts across the globe. After the 501(c)(3) has been established, we will launch The Empowerment Group, LLC. We want to design and produce coats for the public to purchase and use which will cover our future one-to-one business model. We hope that when one person buys a coat, it pays for the cost of giving one away to a homeless individual. The coats will have the same aesthetic, advanced material technology, and come in multiple options for extreme or fashion-based use.
In the coming years, we want to own our own community buildings. Three or more would be used as our manufacturing, business headquarters, low-income housing for homeless women, and a free health clinic, which would provide both mental and physical care. The most important thing I think, is to remember that our organization is not done changing, it will constantly be improving and adapting itself to respond to the needs of our community.
Design has potential to start a revolution
Find opportunity in problems that no one else is addressing
Spending time and gaining trust of your target audience will lead to a better design solution.
Stay honest with your target audience. Setting up realistic expectations will increase trust.
Stay focused on your design solution. Don’t try to be a design-superwoman.
Strategic design is people-focused, not artifact-focused.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Design a community system
Look around your community and see where design can help most
Embed yourself within that community’s daily rituals
Research all possible solutions
Prototype those solutions and ask for feedback
Incorporate feedback continually
Employ your community in the final solution
Establish strategic partnerships to help you deliver your design solution
Break the unsustainable cycle
Design a new ecosystem that will benefit the community
About the Author:
Founder and President
The Empowerment Plan
Veronika Scott is the Founder and President of The Empowerment Plan in Detroit. In Scott’s role as Founder and President, she is responsible for the everyday management of The Empowerment Plan, coat development, funding research and employment of Cass Community Social Services shelter residents.
Currently a design student at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, the “Element S” concept coat was created after Scott received a college assignment in early 2010 to design and fulfill a need. Scott currently employs three female Cass Community Social Services shelter residents who sew the Element S Coats in her 1,200 sq ft space inside a 42,000 sq ft warehouse located at 1401 Vermont Street in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest and most historic neighborhood. Scott shares this warehouse with many other local designers and artists.
Scott’s employees, once homeless themselves, are now learning a trade and have paid employment building coats for others who are currently homeless.
Scott expects to graduate from College of Creative Studies in December 2011.