Growing up, Veronika Scott’s parents struggled with unemployment and addiction. Never sure if they could afford the month’s rent and groceries, her family lived in a household she described as “constantly on edge.” This tension brewed stress and anger that was exacerbated by each eviction notice and move from place to place. Scott told SELF she spent much of her life running away from her background. Her “way out,” as she called it, would be through industrial and product design—a field she felt she could prosper in.

“A lot of people assumed that because of what my parents went through, my siblings and I would end up the exact same way—that we were worthless by extension,” Scott said. “You would have to fight to change peoples’ perception of you even though they had no idea who you were.”

Little did these people know that by the age of 26, Scott would serve as the CEO of a humanitarian organization she founded five years earlier. Scott’s mission through her company, The Empowerment Plan, is simple: help homeless people. And her approach is two-fold. She creates water-resistant, self-heating jackets, called EMPWR coats, that can convert into sleeping bags and distributes them to those in need, and she hires her staff from within homeless shelters, providing jobs to those who typically struggle to find them.

In January 2015, the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the U.S. About 15 percent of that population (83,170 people) are considered “chronically homeless,” which means they regularly experience homelessness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20-25 percent of the U.S. homeless population has some kind of severe mental illness, though only 6 percent of Americans are severely mentally ill. Some of the top causes of homelessness include mental or physical disability, job loss, domestic violence, and addiction.

Scott first began volunteering at homeless shelters in college, because she said she felt comfortable there. “I spent my life living someone else’s rock bottom,” Scott said. “My parents are very intelligent, hardworking people, and I’m very proud of them. So if they could get there, it could happen to anybody.” Scott said she was particularly inspired by two homeless individuals who had created a makeshift tent out of a playground across from the shelter. A week after she noticed their structure, she saw that the playground and tent were destroyed by a fire. The two people living in the tent survived the incident, but Scott was intrigued by their decision. “They risked their lives to build a house out of a playground when there was a shelter across the street,” Scott said. “Why would you try to build something when someone can give you that for free? It comes down to pride, independence, and wanting to take care of yourself. People want to take care of their day-to-day needs.”

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