Detroit design student develops coat for homeless

By Bill Laitner

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) -- An industrial-design major at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Veronika Scott spent all her cash from summer jobs and then some -- donated by family and friends -- to design and sew three coats, actually, each an improved version of the last.

She calls it the Element S(urvival) coat. She is sure it will save lives in Detroit, and someday across the nation and world. As fanciful as that sounds, some people have bought into it.

College for Creative Studies Dean Imre Molnar, a former design director for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company in Ventura, Calif., took one look at Scott's design in November, and "this stopped me dead," he said.

"This is extraordinary. If this garment is successful in Detroit, it's going to work across the country and around the world for homeless people, to say nothing of the relief industry. Wherever you have an earthquake, the Red Cross could distribute these things across the world," he said.

Scott, broke from developing prototypes, asked him for seed money. While she sat there holding her coat, Molnar called another apparel veteran: Mark Valade, CEO of Dearborn-based Carhartt, synonymous with tough work clothes.

"I said, 'I don't usually do this, but this woman has more than a product. She has a well-researched proposal, and she needs 25 pieces made. Can you help her?'" That week, after seeing her coat, Valade and Carhartt were in.

Also in was the Rev. Faith Fowler, who heads the nonprofit Cass Community Social Services, a complex of homeless shelters, training centers and recycling enterprises staffed by formerly homeless people.

Next to a shop where workers turn old tires into mud mats, Scott will have space for the cut-and-sew assembly of the coat.

"You don't want to encourage people to live on the streets," Fowler said. "On the other hand, you have some people who just aren't going to come into the shelter. I see this coat helping all of them."

Carhartt's sewing machines were delivered last week, and Cass Community Social Services expects that Scott will have her fledgling assembly line running by year's end, said the Rev. Ed Hingelberg, operations director.

Carhartt also plans to fly in a seamstress from a plant in Kentucky "to help me train the people who are going to make these," Scott said, with her characteristic grin and her tone of infectious amazement.

On Tuesday, she walked Detroit's Cass Corridor for a crucial moment: the test of her latest prototype on the very street people who might use it.

Outside the NSO shelter, or Neighborhood Service Organization, on Third Street, the student found people she recognized from months of visits. She handed them her coat-cum-bedroll.

"She said it turns into a sleeping bag. Oh, yes indeed!" Jeannie Charles, 52, exclaimed, while her friend Pee Wee Jones, 45, got down on the sidewalk to snuggle into the Element S(urvival) coat.

"I can sleep in this, yes, I can!" Jones said in a muffled shout from inside the shiny white covering.

On its outside, the coat is sewn of Tyvek HomeWrap insulation - weatherproof, dirt-shedding, reflective. On the inside, flexible synthetic fleece supplied by Carhartt.

Scott has made dozens of trips since February to shelters in Detroit, first talking to homeless people about their needs and fears, then testing ideas over and over. She will add 5-foot zippers, donated by Carhartt -- Velcro is far too costly, she found -- and make final design tweaks before starting production of 25 final prototypes.

She's so familiar to her clientele that she's known as "the coat lady" in shelters that "take anybody -- you don't have to be sober, you don't have to be drug-free," she said.

Estimates for Detroit's homeless population range from about 10,000 to 32,000, depending on the source. Homeless people were counted at 10,000 a decade ago by Wayne State University psychologist Paul Toro.

"For sure, it's considerably higher than 10,000 today, given the harsh economic times in Detroit," Toro said.

At a reception this month at the Huntington Woods home of Scott's grandparents, Marshall and Sharon Charlip, family friends watched as Scott modeled her creation and showed off its power to transform -- coat to bedroll, killing cold to survival. They applauded and slipped cash into an envelope to keep Element S(urvival) going.

"It's gorgeous!" said Royal Oak artist Diane Levine, who once taught drawing and painting to Scott in her home studio.

"Folks, if you write a check to CCSS (Cass Community Social Services), and put 'coat project' on it, you'll get a 501c(3) tax deduction and the money will go to" the project, said Huntington Woods attorney Barry Waldman.

In the kitchen, getting a glass of wine, was Scott's classmate Kelsey Beckett, 21, of Rochester.

"It's been a very long project, she's gotten so much done, and she's so young. It makes me feel lazy," Beckett, an illustration major, said with a laugh.

Published: Thu, Dec 2, 2010


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