Fear is a constant factor in Zina Knowshisgun’s life.
She has a job and a home for her two young daughters. She is able to provide them food and access to a decent education. Things seem stable, but Knowshisgun is well aware that things can change in an instant.
Knowshisgun is afraid to decorate her apartment. She doesn’t want to get too comfortable or accumulate too much.
Four years ago, Knowshisgun was homeless with children who needed her care.
“I never thought I would ever see myself in that position,” Knowshisgun said. “I was married, and had been married for almost 10 years. It was just one of those situations that you find the rug ripped out from under you.
“You don’t know what you are going to do or where you are going to go.”
She didn’t hold a cardboard sign on a street corner asking motorists for spare change. She didn’t sleep in doorways of downtown businesses wrapped in a sleeping bag.
Knowshisgun did the best she could with what she had. After spending the maximum amount of time at the Gateway House in Billings, a domestic violence shelter, she scrounged up what money she had left and got a hotel room for her and the girls.
“It was fun for the kids, but scary for me,” Knowshisgun said. “We tried to make it into a big adventure … I didn’t know what I was going to do next.”
An advocate from Gateway House suggested Knowshisgun talk to the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), a non-profit organization that helps homeless families like the Knowshisguns get back on their feet.
“It’s nice to know that there are people out there that are willing to give you a hand up,” Knowshisgun said.
“That’s the thing I have to really keep in the forefront of my mind, that it’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.
“It’s something to help you become more stable, to regroup and just let you be more independent.”
The family went to IHN in March 2006. Five months later, they moved into a new apartment on the West End.
She was finally able to hang the one possession she kept throughout the entire ordeal: her children’s baby pictures.
“That was my biggest treasure when I was homeless,” Knowshisgun said. “Just being to have that box and cart it around … when I moved into this house, I finally was able to go through all of the pictures and hang them on the wall.
“I still haven’t gotten used to the idea that this is my home. I am still kind of thinking at some point, something could happen to where we would end up homeless again.”
IHN helps out families like the Knowshisguns throughout the year, constantly having to turn away hundreds of people from lack of funding and resources.
To help raise awareness about the program and the issue of homelessness in Billings, the organization is hosting the third annual Cardboard Box City.
This year’s event is at Rocky Mountain College on Oct. 9.
“It’s primarily kids and a lot of high school youth groups,” said Leslie Blair, with IHN. “They decorate boxes and stay in them all night.”
The participants raise money through sponsorships that go toward IHN.
Last year’s event at ZooMontana showed kids one of the hardest parts about living in a cardboard box: they aren’t waterproof.
“It rained and rained and rained,” Blair said. “It was just a miserable night. Some abandoned their boxes, some resorted to space at the zoo, and others stuck it out.”
When someone is homeless, however, there isn’t a choice.
“They had a taste of not having an option,” Blair said. “When you are homeless, there is nowhere to go home.”
Those wanting to participate are asked to show up at Rocky Mountain College between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday with boxes large enough to sleep in.
The most creative boxes will win prizes, as well as the individual and group raising the most money.
A soup line dinner will be provided, along with entertainment and a continental breakfast Sunday morning.
Contact Chelsea Krotzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1392.