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The ‘dead-end job’ that has delivered dozens from homelessness

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She set out to make a product to help the homeless endure life on the streets during Detroit’s brutal winters. She ended up starting a business that has taken dozens of homeless people from desperation to independence.

Veronika Scott grew up in poverty. Her parents’ addictions sometimes plunged their entire family into homelessness, and she remembers being written off as hopeless. “People just looked at you as if you’re worthless by extension, as if you’re doomed to repeat the same life,” she said.

After she won a scholarship to the College for Creative Studies, she had an assignment to “meet a real need.” She designed a full-length coat that would double as a sleeping bag hefty enough to resist winter temperatures.

Approximately 194,467 of America’s homeless live outside shelters, and the U.S. government states that 8,351 people are homeless any given night in Michigan – 693 of them veterans.

Scott put her heart into service, providing so many of her specially designed projects that she says now, 15 years later, homeless people still call her the “coat lady.”

She thought she had succeeding in meeting the need until a homeless woman told her bluntly, “I don’t need a coat – I need a job!”

Teach a man to fish….

As Scott networked with shelter organizers and homeless advocates, she learned the heartbreaking depths of intergenerational poverty.

“So many people have just become trapped in shelters for generations,” she said. “We talked to an executive director of a nonprofit, and they’ve known five generations of one family.”

Homeless people face numerous barriers to employment: lack of education, a high rate of mental illness or addiction issues, to the lack of a work wardrobe – even the lack of a fixed address to put on the application.

“How do you change that trajectory for the family?” she asked.

Scott began The Empowerment Plan in 2012 with a unique business plan: She would hire homeless people to make coats for other homeless people.

When she shared her vision, she encountered the same attitude she had experienced as a young girl in a struggling family. The board chair of a shelter she worked with told her, “You’d be lucky if a homeless person could make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, let alone a coat.”

As the phrase goes, nevertheless she persisted.

“We started with three people in a utility closet,” Scott said. “We focus on hiring individuals with dependants, so it’s primarily single mothers. We have 3.5 kids on average per person.”

As her employees learn new skills and earn money, they also get connected to services that will allow them to escape homelessness.

“We allow them the time, while getting paid, to go get other resources and start connecting them with the really complicated system that they were somehow supposed to navigate on their own,” she said.

Her workplace – which includes a classroom and therapy rooms – provides GED classes, domestic violence support groups, and teaches financial and family life skills.

“If you look at a typical week in The Empowerment Plan, someone only spends about 60 percent of their day producing the product,” Scott said.

The results have been phenomenal. The Empowerment Plan has made 45,000 units (coats) worldwide – shipping them to unsheltered homeless people in all 50 states and 18 foreign countries. The project has given more than 60 people the opportunity to work their way from homelessness to self-reliance. And Veronika Scott’s unique nonprofit has been applauded by everyone from CNN to CBN.

“We look at ourselves as the stepping stone,” Scott said. “People are with us for about two years and while they’re with us, they’re getting their home, they’re getting their driver’s license.” Then they “move on to even bigger and better and career opportunities. That’s the goal.”

None of the people who have gone through her program have fallen back into homelessness.

Scott’s transformative nonprofit holds important lessons about the best means of uplifting all people, especially our most forgotten and vulnerable citizens.

Work and capital empowers the poor

We can learn important truths from The Empowerment Plan about how to serve those who have fallen through society’s cracks.

  1. True charity consists of jobs, not handouts. A college student learned from a homeless, likely uneducated woman what should be self-evident: Handouts do not solve poverty. This is true whether the aid is fashioned as domestic welfare programs or foreign aid. As the greatest Jewish teacher, Maimonides, taught, the highest form of charity is helping someone find employment, which gives the person a chance to become self-reliant and, ultimately, help others.
  2. Entry-level jobs are vital. “The utilization of people’s skills is a driving force of the economy,” said John Paul II in a 1999 address. But those with no recent work history find themselves going nowhere. Scott understands that entry-level jobs teach the soft skills that allow people to increase their value and, eventually, their salary. Those who seek to help people taking the first step on the employment ladder should resist any policy that destroys entry-level jobs, such as raising the minimum wage.
  3. Personal relationships trump impersonal government policies. Part of The Empowerment Plan’s magic is that each of the programs are individually tailored to meet the employee’s needs. Charities and nonprofits, like Scott’s, have the ability to know each recipient personally and provide the appropriate resources. Impersonal, one-size-fits-all government programs cannot furnish their recipients with any individualized care and often have unforeseen negative consequences.
  4. Every job is a self-improvement opportunity. Sewing garments in a utility closet sounds like the definition of a “dead-end job.” But the things that Scott provides her employees on-the-clock are afforded in a less visible form by every job. Every job gives people the option to build skills and acquire resources they can use for their own empowerment, or to provide for their children’s future. When high benefits offer perverse incentives to deter people from working, for fear of losing benefits, they do more harm than good.
  5. Capital empowers the poor. During a talk hosted this fall by Goldman Sachs, Scott thanked her board for providing a great deal of “unrestricted capital just to try ideas out.” Capital and labor are natural allies, not enemies engaged in an endless, zero-sum game of class warfare as socialism would have it. “Capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital,” as Pope Leo XIII wrote in the groundbreaking social teaching encyclical Rerum Novarum. That also means that capital earned from other, less socially focused work – what we might think of as “ordinary business” – fuels good works like Scott’s.

The Empowerment Plan is a partnership of capital, innovation, and a heart to transform God’s children from homeless victims to self-supporting producers. May we learn the lessons it has to teach us.

(Photo credit: Screenshot.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.

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