Room at the Inn
Dressed in a stylish black-and-white polo shirt, long, baggy shorts, and white tennis shoes, 15-year-old Rollin could pass for any American high school student. He has bright brown eyes, youthfully rounded cheeks, a charming smile, sleek black hair, and a manner that is by turns shy and confident. Yet Rollin isn’t the high-school sophomore he at first appears to be. He’s a recent Honduran immigrant looking forward to turning 16 later this month so he can register at First Workers, a day-labor cooperative run by the city of Austin. Rollin needs to work, because when he was 10 years old, his father lost the use of his legs in an accident. Since then, Rollin has been working to support his family. Last summer, he made the dangerous trip alone from Honduras to the United States.
Rollin arrived in Austin last June without contacts, money, English, or a place to stay. Hours after he arrived, he went to Austin’s Casa Marianella, a temporary shelter for Spanish-speaking immigrants, where he lived until last February.
Casa Marianella is a 31-bed shelter for the homeless Spanish-speaking immigrant community. It is located in a neighborhood of small, postwar-era bungalows, near downtown on Austin’s Eastside. Ordinarily, residents are only allowed to stay for 30 days, but Rollin was an exception, both because of his youth and because he was alone in Austin.
“There is a need to provide housing to a current homeless population. And we provide that,” says Patti McCabe, one of five “staff volunteers” at Casa. McCabe is an enthusiastic young woman with a direct, no-nonsense manner. She got her degree in psychology from Boston College in 1997, and was placed at Casa by Americorps. The other Casa staff volunteers are Paula Sperry, Sarah Miner, Karen Lyons, and Seth Laninga — the latter three all placed by VESS, Volunteers in Education and Social Services.
The typical resident at Casa Marianella is a married Mexican man between 15 and 70 years old, although the shelter does take in the occasional woman or child. Most of the residents intend to work and send money home to their families in Mexico or Central America; few of them plan to bring their families here. Casa Marianella director Jennifer Long says that during the past year or so, 80-90% of the residents at Casa have been from Mexico, while most of the rest were from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, and Nicaragua. During the second quarter of 1999 there was an unusually large number of Hondurans at the Casa following the disaster caused by Hurricane Mitch.
Like Rollin, most of the residents of Casa Marianella arrived in the United States without money, a place to stay, or contacts who could help them get established. Casa Marianella provides food, a place to sleep, and, perhaps most importantly, those missing connections.
Arriving at the Casa Marianella Shelter for Immigrants on a Sunday evening, you’ll see many people — mostly men — gathered around a small, neat, yellow wood-frame house. A handpainted wooden sign bears the name of the shelter. There’s also a message welcoming visitors painted on a wooden fence by the side of the driveway. The house is in good repair, but is starting to show its age. It was donated in the mid-Eighties by Ed Wendler Sr., 68, a lawyer interested in Central American causes.
“In those years, I was doing a lot of activity in Nicaragua and Central America,” says Wendler. He describes the situation in Central America at
that time as severe. “Lives were in danger. A lot of people who would have been killed were coming here,” he says, and many immigrants who had been forced to leave their homes were sleeping on the streets. So he decided to donate the house specifically for use as a shelter.
In the back yard one recent Sunday evening, a barbecue grill is smoking, and a Spanish-language TV station plays loudly in the living room. Driving by, you might think it’s a family party; and, in a way, it is. “It’s the Casa family,” says McCabe.
Shelter From the Storm
The shelter was founded in December 1985 by the Austin Interfaith Task Force for Central America, a group that opposed the military funding being sent to the civil wars in Central America. McCabe recalls that “floods of Central Americans [were] coming up to the States to escape the violence of the wars.” Casa Marianella was named for a Salvadoran lawyer who was killed in El Salvador in the early Eighties while investigating human rights abuses.
Suzy Webb, who worked from 1980-86 at the Central American Resource Center, a group that provided documentation for political amnesty cases, says the connection between Casa Marianella and various churches is very strong because churches are where people first started hearing stories from returning missionaries about the violence taking place in Central America. When the shelter was established, the residents were primarily from South American countries ravaged by civil war. Since that time, the region’s political woes have quieted somewhat, but the poverty is no less intense. Now most of the Central American refugees who come to the United States are fleeing the economic problems of the area. And the proportion of residents who are from Mexico has skyrocketed.
“I think that, in general, people come here out of complete desperation,” says Long, explaining that many immigrants keep moving until they can find work. Long, who holds a master’s degree in English as a Second Language (ESL) from UT and has been involved in immigrant issues for 15 years, has been with the Casa for four and a half years, and has been director for the past year and a half.
Apart from providing temporary shelter for a Spanish-speaking population, VESS staff volunteer Miner says the Casa is a community unto itself. “It isn’t just a bed and food. It’s a house. We know these guys.” The Casa also serves as a de facto community center for recent immigrants. One of the benefits for the residents is that the connections they make in the house allow them to meet other people in similar situations. Many go on to share rooms or apartments. Rollin, in fact, did exactly that: After leaving the shelter in February, he rented a room in the neighborhood with another former Casa resident.
Another Casa success story is Koty, a 29-year-old former Casa resident who now lives in the neighborhood and sits on the Casa board — the only former resident on the nine-member board.
Koty, originally from Mexico City, first came to Casa in 1995, when she arrived in Austin only to find her husband living with another woman who was pregnant with his child. She was left alone in Austin with two children, one five years old, the other just seven months. With $35 to her name, she spent two nights on the street with the children. A woman she met while buying food took her to Casa Marianella. She stayed there for a month while she looked for a job, eventually moving into a nearby house where she and her children still live. She currently works cleaning houses.
Like many former Casa residents, Koty remains part of the Casa community even though she no longer lives there. She volunteers at the Casa on Saturday mornings; in return, Casa helps Koty out with clothing for her children and occasional gifts of household items. Her children are so comfortable at Casa that they go in and out of the shelter at will, visiting with the residents and volunteers there as if they were part of the same extended family.
Another former Casa resident in secure housing is Siamon Hernandez, 46, who, like many other former residents, still comes to dinner at the Casa on a regular basis; he is among many former residents at the Sunday night backyard barbecue. McCabe estimates that around 20 nonresidents turn up to eat dinner at the Casa each day. With Benito Urbina, a volunteer ESL teacher, acting as translator, Hernandez explains that in mid-November he moved out into an apartment with some friends whom he met in Austin. Although he was fortunate enough to move from the Casa into safe housing, Hernandez says that things are hardly perfect; he and his roommates are having trouble making the rent, and because the time frame for meeting people and deciding to move in together is so short, it’s hard to really get to know the people you will be living with.
Martin Barrou, 48, is another ex-resident who is at the Sunday night dinner. He is originally from Ciudad Mante in Tamaulipas, Mexico, a town not far from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Unlike Hernandez, Barrou had nowhere to go when he moved out of the shelter in late November. Now he is homeless and is living in the woods around East Austin.
Barrou has been in Austin since October, making money to send to Mexico to his wife and four children, who range from 15 to 24 years old. In Tamaulipas, Barrou worked harvesting sugarcane and irrigating the fields. Since he has been in Austin, he has found odd work roofing, painting houses, and digging ditches. In the morning he eats in a restaurant for what he describes as “very little money.” In the evenings he cooks rice at the Casa and stays for dinner.
Long says that 45% of the people leaving the Casa move into safe and secure housing, and she says that’s higher than the rate for other homeless shelters. But Raul MuÃ±oz, development director of the Austin Area Command of the Salvation Army, says his program does even better. He says that approximately 70% of the people completing the Salvation Army’s Passages Program, a long-term case management program designed to move people into permanent housing, go on to find safe housing; 40 to 45% of the people in the Army’s family dorm go on to safe housing, and 45 to 50% of the men in the Salvation Army’s single dorm go on to safe housing that is not necessarily permanent.
A Strict Regimen
Although it is the second largest shelter in Austin, Casa Marianella still can’t provide help for everyone who needs its services. McCabe says they turn someone away every day. With 31 beds for residents, plus a futon in the office for the staff member on the night shift, it is still a fairly small operation. The largest homeless shelter in Austin, the Salvation Army, has 260 beds.
For those who do manage to secure a spot in the Casa, the daily routine at the house is unvarying. Most residents leave in time to arrive at the First Workers day labor center, located at I-35 and 50th Street, at exactly 5:30am. Cab drivers are instructed to drive the precise speed for prompt arrival. Arrive any earlier, and you’ll be accused of loitering and denied work for the day. Arrive any later, and everyone else is ahead of you, making your chances of getting work that day minimal. The day labor site is important for most residents, as few of them have stable jobs. The goal of everyone at the house is to get fixed work. “Far less than half have fixed work,” says McCabe. “And here, guaranteed work for a month is fixed work.”
Since everyone in the Casa is either pursuing or performing work, the house is closed to the residents at 8am and reopened at 1pm. The motivation for this, Urbina explains, is to encourage people to look for work.
Dinner at the house is served at 6:30, followed by a mandatory ESL class — offered on two skill levels at nearby Allan Elementary School — and a house meeting at 9:30pm, where household chores are assigned. On Sunday the residents have what they describe as “the big clean,” where everything is mopped and thoroughly cleaned. McCabe says this cleaning schedule is effective. “We keep it pretty clean for a small, old house with tons of people coming through,” she says.
While it is clear that residents all come to Casa Marianella for similar reasons, that isn’t true of the people who come to volunteer at the Casa. Urbina, 25, is an ESL teacher, originally from Del Rio, who just finished six years in the U.S. Navy. “I feel a sense of leadership with these guys,” says Urbina, who works in the computer field by day. He says his background is very similar to that of the Casa’s residents. “Both of my parents were illegal aliens at one point,” he says.
Another Casa volunteer is Stan Main, 46, a former programming director for CBS radio in Austin. Main first became involved in the shelter when he went back to school at UT a year ago. He had the opportunity to perform community service for an upper-division elective credit. Since he’d already suffered through four semesters of Spanish, he says, he wanted to volunteer in a place where he could improve his grasp of the language. He usually volunteers at Casa Marianella about three times a week; on one recent Sunday, he took a group of residents to an Austin flea market. Main is involved enough in the Casa that several of the other volunteers came to see the premiere of his stand-up comedy act last week at the Capitol City Comedy Club.
Workers at the Casa describe it as the only “open” homeless shelter in town (that is, a shelter that admits all homeless people) other than the Salvation Army. But the populations the two shelters serve are quite different. According to Long, homeless immigrants tend to be homeless because they are immigrants, while homeless U.S. residents are homeless for a different set of reasons. This often causes tensions between the two groups, and Long says that many in the Casa’s Spanish-speaking population felt uncomfortable at the Salvation Army.
The house itself runs on an annual cash budget of approximately $90,000 a year. Some of that is federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), administered by the city of Austin, while the rest comes from donations from volunteer groups, organizations, and concerned individuals — some 18% comes from direct church donations, and 38% from individuals. However, Long says, the actual budget is closer to $250,000 if all of the in-kind donations are included. These often include food, like the meat smoking on the grill during the Sunday evening barbecue, which was donated by the Cristo Rey Catholic Church. As might be expected of a group on a budget with a lot of mouths to feed, meat isn’t an item that often turns up at dinner. In order to feed the 30 or so residents — plus the 20 or so nonresidents who also turn up each night — McCabe says that the house relies primarily on rice, beans, and tortillas.
As unusual as Casa Marianella is, it is not unique. According to Long, there are similar programs in El Paso and Houston.
While Long thinks that, in the past, there was a tendency to blame immigrants for problems that were beyond their ability to control, she now sees the booming economy changing attitudes about immigrants. “Now that the economy is so good in Austin, there is talk about maybe there should be amnesty again,” she says. “I think even the political climate has changed” in the past six months.
Although the reasons that immigrants are coming to this country have changed since Casa Marianella was founded, the person responsible for providing the shelter space is happy with the way his investment in the community has turned out. “I’m really pleased what the people have done with that place,” says Wendler. “They’ve done an incredible job.”