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Editor's note: KSL.com’s “Homeless” series features four individuals experiencing homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley. The first can be found here, the second can be found here, and the third can be found here. This is Nikki's story.*
SALT LAKE CITY — Nikki makes her way to a chair at the long wooden table crammed into the conference room at the Midvale Road Home, a homeless shelter for families.
The "conference room" looks more like a storage room, though, as Nikki shuffles past boxes of donations with her 11-year-old son in tow.
She has her dark blonde hair up in a tight bun, still wet from a wash. She lets it down, and it glistens in the fluorescent light. Some people don’t even recognize her with her hair down, she says.
Nikki and her two sons have been in the shelter this time for several weeks now. Her husband stays there occasionally, though he usually leaves for a friend’s house because “he just can’t function here,” she says.
She’s hoping she won’t have to either for much longer.
Nikki says the root of her “issues” stems from an unhealthy relationship with her mother — a woman she describes as an “unmedicated, undiagnosed mental case.” Nikki, herself a mother of three, hadn’t spoken with her mother for 18 years until just recently.
Now, Nikki’s hoping she can also repair the relationship with her own adult daughter. She and her ex-wife “paid a lot of money” so Nikki could become pregnant with their daughter, she says, but Nikki was forced to give their daughter up to Nikki's mother when both she and her ex-wife were deployed by the Navy.
It was four years after Nikki left the Navy that she met Scott. She was riding the bus on her way to ring bells for the Salvation Army when he came over to talk to her stepmother, an old acquaintance of his.
“When I got off the bus, I’m like, ‘I’m keeping that one.’ And (my stepmother’s) like, ‘Oh no you’re not! But 13 years later, I still have him,” she says with a smile. “A lot of people don’t make it that far, especially not going through everything we’ve been through.”
On bad choices
Nikki and Scott’s boys are now entering their preteen years, but when they were younger, they both ended up in foster care after their parents “made some bad choices,” Nikki says, with an eye trained on her 11-year-old, the younger of the two boys.
“But honestly, it was the best gift we were ever given,” she says. “It needed to happen, and they went with such a good family, and they’re still in our lives today. They’re really good people. We love them.”
Her son is trying to seem cool and disinterested but can’t quite help but add little commentaries along the way. Being in a foster home was “50-50,” he says. There was good and bad. The good? Nerf guns. The bad? His foster parents were too strict, and the food was too healthy, he says.
Both Nikki and her husband graduated from The Odyssey House — a program that helps people recover from addictions and mental health issues. Though it was difficult, Nikki now loves the program and says it taught her husband to be a man, husband and father.
We’ve worked so hard and come so far. I feel like we’re backsliding having to be here.
Though Nikki’s family has been homeless “a few times,” this time isn’t because they did anything wrong, she insists.
“It’s so much easier to deal with things when you know you’re here because your extracurricular activities put you here,” she says with the air of a mother talking about illicitness in front of her preteen son.
Nikki was previously living in an apartment with her two sons, she says, but when her husband completed another round of treatment and moved back in with them, their landlady evicted the whole family.
“It was just based on his (criminal) record that they didn’t want to work with him at all, so we ended up here, again,” she says. “It didn’t have to be this way had someone just stopped and thought for two seconds, and talked to us about the situation.”
In fact, talking is exactly what Nikki wishes people did more of, especially with those experiencing homelessness.
“Kindness and understanding goes a (longer) way than just being afraid or embarrassed of the homeless population,” she says. “Find out why they’re in that situation because, chances are, it’s not going to be the first thing you think it is. It’s not always based on addiction. … I’d say just take the time to sit down and talk to somebody.”
She also wishes people understood how easily small, but kind gestures can bolster a downtrodden heart, and she has her own story to prove it:
It’s moments like that that turn families around, that give that little bit of hope that it can get better, it will get better.
If you'd like to help others like Nikki who are experiencing homelessness in Utah, check out our donation page, or contact your local homeless shelter to find out how you can donate or volunteer.
*Nikki has asked that her last name and pictures of her and her child's face not be included with this story in order to protect their privacy.