MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Over the last 12 months, the Muskegon Rescue Mission has seen the number of those seeking shelter dramatically increase.

Month after month, the figures have risen, up 35% from a year ago. By the time winter comes, it will shelter nearly 150 men, women and children every night.

“Most of the people that are coming in to us, they’re simply trying to escape the brutality of the weather,” executive director Dan Skoglund said. “The winter and the cold, the snow, the wind; it’s a struggle to stay warm. In some cases, it’s a struggle to stay alive.”

On Monday, communities across the world recognized World Homeless Day. In Muskegon, Skoglund and the Rescue Mission collaborated with Empowerment Plan and the DTE Energy Foundation to help tackle the problem. The groups were part of a plan to distribute 333 EMPWR coats — an innovative winter jacket that doubles as a sleeping bag — around Michigan to mark the day. Thirty of those were handed out at the Muskegon Rescue Mission.

Dan Skoglund, left, Jonathon Wilson and Alissa Novoselick, right, show off the versatility of the EMPWR coats.

The Empowerment Plan started 10 years ago as a college project. According to VP of finance and operation, Alissa Novoselick, it was never meant to grow into what it is today — a tool that has been given to over 65,000 people in all 50 states and across 20 different countries.

“The design remains very much similar to what Veronika Scott, CEO and founder, envisioned, which is a sleeping bag coat that is also discreet enough that people can bring it with them wherever they go,” Novoselick said.

Empowerment Plan and DTE Energy Foundation have distributed more than 1,500 EMPWR coats in Michigan over the last three years.

“Every year the DTE Foundation goes into the community, finds areas of need. And supports them,” the foundation’s regional manager Jonathan Wilson said. “We want to give people the opportunity to stay warm with dignity and respect.”

The coat uses material that is difficult to rip, creating a sustainable and useful jacket for the long term. Utilizing Velcro and buckles, the heavy-duty jacket can be converted into a sleeping bag or tote in a matter of seconds. Even more purposeful is that the company employs the same people who may be in most need.

“The coat is an amazing byproduct and has very tangible impact itself. Obviously, keeping people warm in the winter months in a place like Muskegon, like Michigan, is very important. But what makes Empowerment Plan so special is we employ individuals who are in shelters like the Muskegon Rescue Mission,” Novoselick said. “We really think that Empowerment Plan is an amazing bridge between coming into shelter and then exiting into the workforce.”

That’s a mission Skoglund and his team can get behind as they stare down the harsh realities of rising need and the looming winter months.

“Our goal here at the Mission isn’t just to help people with shelter tonight but is to show them a path and way out of poverty,” Skoglund said. “So starting with the jacket, starting with (showing), you have worth and value, you deserve to be warm, opens that door, that conversation. What does it look like to you to not need these services anymore? How do we help you move forward? And that’s what empowerment plan is about.”

To learn more about sponsoring an EMPWR coat, click here.