In 2018, the homeless shelter provided financial, legal and medical care to more than 400 immigrants, most of whom were seeking asylum and coming from detention centers.
By Kaiti Evans
With Google Translate and volunteers by her side, Jennifer Long helps immigrants from throughout the world find their place in the United States. As the executive director at Casa Marianella, a homeless shelter for immigrants, Long oversees the nonprofits’ variety of services, from legal and medical care to shelter and language learning.
She started working for Casa Marianella 21 years ago and initially became interested in immigration social work because of her concern for the U.S.’ foreign policy in Central America. Long decided instead of trying to directly reform the government’s foreign policy, she would work closely with immigrants who needed her.
“There’s a big hole in our immigration system, which is that when people come to the border and they ask for asylum, it is completely legal to do that,” Long says. “Then they are released, and they are not allowed to work, and they are not allowed any social services either. And so, one of the things we are trying to do here is fill in the gaps.”
Casa Marianella is one of the few shelters of its kind in the country, and according the nonprofit’s website, 65 percent of “shelter residents, including children, are asylum seekers” and often come from detention centers. The Austin Interfaith Task Force for Central America opened the shelter in 1986 but has since helped immigrants from more than 40 countries. In 2003, Posada Esperanza was launched as a branch of Casa Marianella specifically catering to immigrant women and their children.
Absorbing individuals and families from throughout the world has brought to light harsh realities of the immigrant journey and asylum process in the U.S. Though many of the Casa Marianella residents have lived through difficult circumstances, Long says their stories are inspiring to most who meet them.
“The vast majority of our residents are an inspiration because of their resilience, and they are able to get on their feet and go on with their lives and do really well,” Long says.
In 2018, Casa Marianella served 425 people, and Long aims for each resident to be stabilized medically, legally and financially after three months at the shelter. For Jeannette, a former resident of Casa Marianella, the shelter’s staff helped her regain independence.
“I was coming to America and I was a refugee, so I was in a detention center and I was looking for people to help me to get out, and Casa Marianella helped me a lot,” Jeannette says. “I was living here, and they helped me through everything. I was not speaking English and there was nothing and no one to translate to me, and they were trying to teach me English. That’s why I am so grateful and so happy. That’s why I keep coming because it is a family for me.”
Long’s goal for the shelter’s expansion is limited by the housing market in Austin. Currently, there are 12 houses for residents to use, together holding as many as 120 people every night. Though growing in Austin is slow, Long hopes to find more shelters to share in her mission.
Many of the shelter’s staff started at the nonprofit as volunteers at a young age. Long says everyone who joins her team is ready to help change the lives of immigrants for little pay, and their passion is unmatched.
“It is incredibly rewarding when someone comes to you and they don’t have anywhere to stay and they are in danger to be able to say come on in,” Long says. “I mean, that is such a privilege and an honor. Direct service is really gratifying, giving someone food when they are hungry, shelter when they have nowhere to sleep, a lawyer when they need representation. … Providing people with basic things that they need is really rewarding because we all want to be comfortable and cared for.”