Nikki Gane leads a small team of volunteers who visit shelters and homeless encampments one night each month, distributing supplies.
You forget about how important the little things are.
A fresh toothbrush. A bar of soap. A washcloth. A razor.
But Nikki Gane remembers. She was living in her car back East after fleeing a bad marriage. One night turned into another. And then another.
The little things — shampoo, even a clean tissue — got bigger all the time.
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“I didn’t have my daily needs,” Gane remembered. “And that’s how you start to fall apart. If you lose too many pieces of yourself, it’s harder to put yourself back together.”
Gane, 44, is doing what she can to keep Seattle’s homeless women (and now men) together with a nonprofit she founded called Dignity for Divas.
One night a month, Gane and a small team of volunteers visit the shelters and homeless encampments of Seattle, distributing hygiene kits to people living in tents or lining up to sleep in shelters.
The organization collects donated toiletries — or buys them outright with donations — and assembles the kits. Or companies like Microsoft purchase the toiletries and have employees assemble kits as a community-service exercise.
On Oct. 14, a huge storm stirred up by super typhoon Songda was expected to bring strong winds to the region. The Salvation Army had placed 430 beds in three different locations.
Gane was determined to reach as many people as possible.
“This is my life and I love it,” she said. “Because I have purpose. Your purpose is in the pain. You just have to pull it out.
“What do you do with what happened to you?”
Along with handing out the hygiene kits, Gane visits the organizations that assemble them — schools, local companies — and talks about her experiences, urging them to be aware of the homeless community.
“This is real,” she said. “We can no longer turn a blind eye.”
As Gane unloaded her SUV at the corner of Jefferson Street and Fourth Avenue, the homeless assembled for the night.
A line of men stretched around the wall outside the King County Administration Building, where a shelter was being set up in the lobby area. Across the street, people sat on benches or tucked into a line of tents that stretched the length of City Hall Park.
Gane decided to store the boxes in the county building and head out to the campers in the park, then to those waiting outside Seattle City Hall, where a temporary shelter had been set up.
“If they’re not looking at you, saying it’s OK to approach, don’t,” Gane told her volunteers as they walked. “We just leave them alone. Even if our intentions are good, we don’t want to upset anyone.”
As the group walked toward the entrance of the county building, and past the line of men, Gane continued with her instructions: Stay together. Don’t engage in conversation.
“It leaves you in a vulnerable state,” she said, “and you don’t know where their head space is.”
It was hard for some not to respond, as some men in line called out to the group:
“What are you guys handing out here?”
“Can you please help me with a bottle of water?”
Gane assured them they would be taken care of inside.
“I’m good at it because it’s real to me,” she said. “I get it, so I can give it.”
Once inside the county building, she grabbed one of the purple plastic bags and pulled out a toothbrush and held it up.
“It’s such a simple thing,” she said. “But it’s ownership. This is mine. I don’t have to share it.”
In 2006, Gane was married and she knew she had to get out. So she ended up living in her car for eight days.
“It was just eight days, but it was eight long days,” she said. “It felt like 8,000 days because I was completely disconnected. No heat, no water. You’re a woman and you’re vulnerable.
“Homelessness is not what you think.”
She turned to the volunteers gathering bags and preparing to head outside.
“I want you, with every single person, to look into their eyes,” she said. “Their eyes tell every chapter, every page.”
They followed her instructions, from tent to tent, to the people gathered outside City Hall, to the men filing into the county building, about to settle on a green cot on the floor.
“Thank you very much,” one man said, then peered into the bag and looked up. “Life is good.”