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Home-Sharing Programs Target Shelter Gap

Across the US, organizations are offering opportunities for the home-rich and home-poor to share living space, housekeeping, and rent

CALL it matchmaking without the romance. Shelter is the focus. Currently, some 400 programs across the United States try to pair up the home-rich and the home-poor in ways that benefit both parties. Fueled by the recession, the number of such programs has quadrupled in the last decade.

New Jersey alone has 19 home-sharing programs. A group in North Hollywood, Calif., called Valley Storefront holds a get-acquainted gathering once a month for clients and applicants for home shares. A group in Seattle called Family Home Share, part of the Solo Parenting Alliance there, specializes in bringing single-parent families together to share apartments and homes.

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Arrangements of programs vary widely:

* Carol Jones of Manhattan, retired and in her 50s, says she was close to "desperate" to find housing she could afford when her request for help to the Home Sharing Program of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens Inc., finally paid off. After extensive interviews, she was introduced to 91-year-old Sophie Roberts, a retired dressmaker who has a two-bedroom apartment and needed help with rent and expenses. "We hit it off right away," Ms. Jones says. Five months into their sharing arrangement, both w omen maintain a high degree of independence. "I make dinner late for myself and she cooks early," Jones says. "She's a very lovely person, she keeps her room clean, and she treats me like a mother," Ms. Roberts says.

* Martin Parsons, retired from the food-service business, sought help from the same nonprofit agency. He has a five-room apartment and particularly wanted a companion who could provide added security by being in the apartment at night. The agency introduced him to Bob Stevens. Both are divorced and have children and grandchildren who visit.

The two divide all expenses, eat together on some nights, and often attend concerts and movies together. Since Mr. Parsons is handicapped and uses an electric scooter to get around, Mr. Stevens does the shopping and accompanies Parsons on some more difficult errands. "It's almost like a marriage - you have to really work at it and give and take - and I think it's most important to select a contemporary," Parsons says.

The Home Sharing Program of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens is in its 10th year of operation and has made 250 such matches. Linda Hoffman, Foundation executive director, admits the pairing is sometimes difficult. The program's in-depth screening, for instance, includes home visits with the "guest" and sometimes with the "host" and a full check of professional and personal references. Both parties are encouraged to sign an agreement in which they list services they will provide and financial a rrangements agreed upon. "We're there the day the guest moves in and we're on call 24 hours a day in case there's a problem," Ms. Hoffman says.

Student-senior pair-ups are common. "The seniors love it because they like to have kids in the house, and the kids will do light housekeeping, shopping, and serve as escorts." However, Parsons says many younger people also "want to stay out late at night and have company over."

"It takes some doing to make these arrangements work, but it often saves two people who have situations they didn't really know how to deal with," adds Foundation vice president Patricia McCann. "Many elderly people who have space to share can get by with just a little help in shouldering chores."

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The National Shared Housing Resource Center, a nonprofit organization based in Burlington, Vt., acts as a clearinghouse for the hundreds of shared-housing programs around the country. It was established in 1981 in Philadelphia by Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn, who has shared her home with others for more than three decades.

Margaret Harmon, co-director of the Vermont center, says home-sharing programs for groups of senior citizens also are on the rise. They usually involve citizens who would rather cook and live together than maintain solo apartments or move to retirement centers and nursing homes.

The one-on-one matches, Ms. Harmon says, tend to work best in cities where more people are hunting for housing, than in rural areas. Though all ages are involved, shared housing increasingly involves pairing younger people who need housing with older people who have it. "More and more, these arrangements are about companionship."

"I have some matches where no money is exchanged and others where they [home-seekers] pay up to $200 a month," says Kaye Wallace, who heads the Homes Share Program in Oaksdale, Minn. She is also president of the Minnesota Home Sharing Association, a statewide coalition. "Some seniors on fixed incomes can't afford to pay their taxes, so that $200 a month can make a big difference."

Ms. Wallace, a licensed social worker who also helps homemakers with other services, says she is aware of a few home shares that have not worked out, but most work well. Particularly important is the drafting of the living-arrangements contract. She says it should cover overnight guests, smoking, pets, and what the new home sharer will do to help. "Keep my house clean" is not specific enough. "If the person is going to vacuum, how many times a month?" she asks.

Those in the matches Wallace arranges are told to give at least 30 days notice if they want to end the arrangement. "I expect them in their hearts, I tell them, to make a nine-month commitment," she says, "and people are pretty good about that."

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