Casa Marianella, a Humane Alternative

One of the three houses owned and operated by Casa Marianella. Credit: Sara Zavaleta

The outside picnic area where residents gather to eat and talk. Credit: Sara Zavaleta

One of the many murals that decorates the outside of Casa Marianella. Credit: Sara Zavaleta

Written by - Jessica Carey-Webb

“We’re treated like we’re their own children,” said Elvis, a migrant from Cameroon, describing the migrant shelter Casa Marianella. “I can do what I want, they help me with things and then I can do it for myself.” Word of mouth in detention led Elvis to seek out Casa Marianella, where if there is room, migrants are received, given shelter for up to three months, and offered resources to get on their feet. Established in 1986 by a local civic leader, Ed Wendler, Casa Marianella was originally meant to shelter people fleeing Central American wars. The house was later donated to the Catholic Diocese of Austin and run by the Austin Interfaith Task Force for Central America. In the late 1980s the shelter shifted along with international politics to accommodate migrants from all over the world with priority given to those fleeing war and persecution. Casa receives funding from the City of Austin and now owns three houses on Gunter St., one for adults, one for families, and a third that opened in 2011 for families with small children. Upon leaving detention, many migrants are left without knowing anyone, having virtually no monetary or logistical support, and needing to wait months or even years to receive a work visa. Casa uses every resource it can and depends in part on a large network of volunteers who help residents with classes, filling out paperwork and just generally getting started in the U.S. Located in historically diverse and working class East Austin, Casa is one of the few migrant shelters in the United States, presenting a humanitarian vision of how to help migrants and effect change. The houses of Casa Marianella are at the end of a short street, rather inconspicuous despite the colorful murals and bike racks outside. It almost feels like a youth hostel with its public space, multitude of beds, rooms, smells, and people from all over the world. Residents move in and out, working out or eating, calling to each other in various languages. A general sense of community and relief is palpable. This ability of mobility, with no fences and plenty of outdoor space, serves as a stark contrast to where many of the migrants now living in Casa were last housed. Like Elvis, most people hear of Casa through word of mouth while in detention. Casa Marianella’s stated goal is to “provide for the basic needs of homeless immigrants in Austin in a dignified setting that builds community.” This mission is in stark contrast to the lived experience of migrants held in detention centers. Through cognitive mapping exercises, many of the residents in Casa Marianella have described their detention experience. One former detainee, Miguel, explained how his room was arbitrarily switched to discourage bonding with others and add to a general sense of helplessness and disorientation at the Pearsall detention center. Casa, on the other hand, encourages community and humane treatment rather than stripping residents of identity, autonomy, and control. Elvis has had the same room at Casa in the two months he’s been there – “I love my room, it’s where I can relax, work on my English, listen to music…” Ultimately, Casa is a residence rather than an institution.

Within the larger landscape of detention which is designed to criminaliz emigration, Casa Marianella offers some hope. It is hard to imagine a viable alternative to detention yet Casa Marianella has been a light at the end of a dark tunnel – a metaphor many former detainees have used in describing their feelings about the shelter.