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Women Who Inspire

Nikki Gane | Founder, Dignity for Divas

October 21, 2014

When Nikki Gane found herself homeless and living an unexpected life without basic necessities such as a toothbrush and toiletries, she found her self-esteem diminished and the reality of a life of homelessness setting in. Fast forward to the present day, and Nikki is the founder of one of Seattle’s growing community organizations— Dignity for Divas.The non-profit, volunteer-based organization makes monthly drop-offs and provides daily services to homeless women (and men), providing them with basic hygiene necessities – an act that brings as much happiness to Gane as to the women and men she serves. 

Dignity for Divas started from your personal experience of being homeless. What was it about that experience specifically that garnered this idea for Dignity for Divas?
There is something about honestly being in a situation where you have no resources that triggers you in so many ways. For me, it was being without personal things. The little diva in me is like, ‘my hair, my makeup’ – you know, keeping me together. Not being able to keep me together – I will never forget that feeling. It is the most detrimental thing that could happen to you, because you lose yourself. You lose who you are. Things you take for granted are no longer available and these are everyday things you don’t really think twice about. When you don’t have those things, the reality sets in of how vulnerable you are.

What are some of the misconceptions society has of why someone is homeless that you found when homeless, or still see today?
There are so many. I get so upset because unfortunately, in society, we have a sense of entitlement. A lot of time, people will view others in bad situations as a ‘them’ and ‘us’ thing—but it’s not. It’s us. It’s all of us. Most of us are a paycheck away. People think it’s not real. I’m like, ‘lose your job for the day – how much money do you really have saved? Do you really have that family support that you think you do? How many friends would really let you stay at their house?’ It’s real. A lot of the people we service and come across have a lot of issues: health, disabilities – it’s unbelievable. People have come back from the military and have a hard time getting their life back together. Even elderly – it breaks my heart. There are so many different situations. There is a lot of substance abuse, but not as much as you would think. Some people will assume homeless individuals are drinking or are on drugs. No. That’s not always the case. Life happened to them. That’s what happened. Just like life happened to me.

"Our life is a puzzle. Anyone can lose a piece here and there, but you still get a vision of what your puzzle is – where you are, who you are. But if you lose too many pieces, you can’t put your puzzle back together."

What you have experienced and seen – what challenges, besides the obvious, do homeless women face compared to homeless men? How would you say the experiences differ?
On a surface level, it affects a man and a woman the same way in regards to the basics. But for a woman, there are so many more hurdles. Number one, you have female issues you have to deal with – every month, every day. You are a woman. It doesn’t change based on your demographics. Resources for hygiene are important. When you are not able to have those resources, it can really snowball the issues.

Safety: there are a lot of woman who get abused, who get raped – it’s unbelievable. They don’t have that protection. It’s literally you against the world. If you don’t have a strong family base or people you can depend upon, it’s really you fending for yourself. That’s where the dignity comes into place. I always say to people, ‘Our life is a puzzle. Anyone can lose a piece here and there, but you still get a vision of what your puzzle is – where you are, who you are. But if you lose too many pieces, you can’t put your puzzle back together. You can’t see you. You lose who you are. You lose yourself. Try to build that back up, build yourself, build your self-image, build your dignity, your self-respect, to go back out there in the world and present yourself…it’s definitely hard.

One of the great things that Dignity for Divas does is team up with the Seattle Police Department; how did that partnership form and in what ways does that make what you guys do stronger?
Let me tell you this, God is amazing. From the very beginning, the moment I decided to do this, everything happened. That’s all you have to do. Decide. Once you do, everything will flow. Just stand firm and decide. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I wanted to do it. I was going to the Dollar Store and getting stuff for bags and everything just happened. How the partnership started was I met a great lady who started to volunteer for us and her husband happened to be on the force. She was like, ‘Honey, you have got to see this great group,’ and then the SPD called and said, ‘Hey, we will take your group out for your night drops.’ From there, it has been all-the-way support. Every month they take our group out.

The impact it has had, most importantly, is safety. We go out at night and service people in areas we aren’t familiar with or even know exist. There are areas in Seattle that are underground cities that most people don’t even know about. And people are so thankful for help. When they see the officers come, they are so thankful. It building that relationship and building that trust. I think it’s good for the community to see that. I think it’s good for SPD, too, because sometimes they need to see that people appreciate what they’re doing . . . know what they do. They do more than be there when there’s trouble – they also help out in the community, too. It makes every bit of a difference.

"There is a lot to learn from an individual, regardless of gender."

Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said; “Only female business leaders get asked if they have nannies. Men aren’t asked: How do you do that? How do you do this? How do you balance both a career and family?” How accurate is this statement?
It’s very true, but in a sense it’s also a hidden compliment. It’s not that a man cannot do the same, it’s just that woman and men are different. We structure our mindset differently. When people ask those questions, it’s from amazement. We are always going to get questions on our strength. The way that’s it’s always been projected has been negative, but it’s a positive. There is a lot to learn from an individual, regardless of gender. I have learned so much when working with men and I’ve learned so much, learning from women. So you have to take what you need and throw away the rest. Take what you need, don’t make it personal.

What’s next for Dignity for Divas?
What I dream about every day is Dignity for Divas will be everywhere—in every city. My goal is to help people everywhere. The only thing is time and space. As long as I keep pushing towards it, it will happen. It’s needed, not just in Seattle. In Los Angeles, the homeless population is unbelievably high; there is no reason why people cannot have personal hygiene. Everyone wants to be clean. The only person who doesn’t care about their teeth being clean is a person who doesn’t have any. Everyone wants a clean mouth. Who doesn’t want to be fresh? I think every person deserves that.

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I applaud what you're doing.  You have a big heart and you've 'been there'.  Not only do you understand just how easy it is to fall between the cracks, you care enough to try to help.  I, too, have 'been there'.  Now that I'm retired I'm volunteering at our local food bank.  There's a lot of people struggling these days.  Life can throw some pretty big curve balls and unless you've experienced that you really don't know.   And people don't realize just how easy it can be to find yourself in a horrible situation.  Thank you for what you do.

Nikki is an extraordinary individual. She was formerly head of the Day Center at the Sophia Way.  During her time in this position she managed the operation in a very professional manner and truly helped us grow to the next level.  We all feel that Nikki is still an important member of our team even though she has moved on to other things.  We salute what she has done with Divas for Dignity.  She has alwayss been and will be what is termed "Better Than Best."  Thank you Nikki!!!!!

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