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Opening Homes to Katrina Survivors

Thousands of people in the area offer their homes to evacuees of the Gulf Coast.

For several days now, Claire McCarthy has been trying to free up space in her single-family home in Arlington. She is expecting company — hoping for it.

“If I double the kids up, I’ll have two bedrooms with bathrooms that I could make available,” she said. “I have plenty here to make it nice for them.”

Through HurricaneHousing.org, McCarthy is offering her home to as many as four hurricane evacuees who watched their towns and cities drown in destruction.

McCarthy knows what it’s like to be without a home. For a brief time when she was a teenager she didn’t have a home. “People reached out to me and helped me in my moment of need,” she said. “And now I live in a six-bedroom house, because I’ve been lucky, I’ve been blessed, and I feel it’s important to give back and share the fruits of our labor.”

McCarthy is one of thousands throughout the country who is using the web to post available living space to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. More than 250,000 beds have been offered on HurricaneHousing.org, who estimates that it has matched 17,000 evacuees with housing.

In the Washington, D.C. region, which includes Northern Virginia, the same site lists more than 2,500 offers, many if not most of which include housing for more than one person. Other sites, like craigslist.org and HomesForKatrina.org, are working to match evacuees with shelter.

For McCarthy, a mother of two young children, giving money to the Red Cross was not enough. She was compelled to do more. “I can’t get up and go down there, but there are a number of ways we can help without being there,” she said.

McCarthy has yet to hear from evacuees, but she continues to wait. Organizers at HurricaneHousing.org have asked people who have offered shelter to be patient.

“Thank you for offering shelter to someone in need. We’re doing everything we can, but it may take a while to get the word out. Please hang in there. Someone is desperate for what you’re offering — we just need to make sure they find out about it,” said a letter from the site to people who have offered housing.

IT’S NOW MORE than two weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, leveling cities and towns in its wake, killing hundreds of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more.

“The sheer level of devastation is unimaginable,” said Scott Perry, who has had a hard time watching the news about the hurricane on television. “They’re my countrymen — that’s what hit me so hard and the feeling of absolute helplessness.”

Like McCarthy, Perry gave money to the Red Cross, but thought that offering one bedroom in his two-bedroom flat in Old Town Alexandria was an even better way to help out. He posted his offer on HurricaneHousing.org.

“Once I heard that people were being relocated as far as Massachusetts, I thought I could offer shelter too,” he said, adding that he has yet to hear from an evacuee in need of shelter. “I’ll try to help them with whatever they need. I just want to make sure they’re all set and ready to start the healing process.”

Perry, who moved to Alexandria from Tampa Bay about 16 months ago, said that he has seen up close the trauma of being homeless. “During my 10 years in Tampa, I had done a lot of work with literacy programs for the homeless,” he said, adding that it will be difficult for many of these people to get back on their feet and that they will need as much help as everyone can offer.

After hearing that a place in the local area, like the D.C. Armory, was going to provide temporary shelter for evacuees, many area people have decided to offer housing.

Others like Claudia McDowell of Springfield, mother of a two-year-old and a newborn less than a year old, had brainstormed with her husband every night about different ways to help. After giving a donation to the Red Cross, McDowell’s husband had learned that people were posting housing notices on the web for evacuees. “I knew a lot of people from the Gulf area were coming to this area,” said McDowell, who decided to look into providing housing. Soon after, she had posted a listing and made her spare bedroom available. “We could easily equip a mom with a baby or a toddler,” she said, adding that she already has all the necessary supplies and foods available.

“Everyday I check my email to see if someone can use our space,” she said. A staffer with Fairfax County’s Department of Family Services, McDowell works everyday trying to help people and match them to needed services. “If we didn’t have kids, we’d have been down there,” she said.

She also said that she’s not surprised that so many people throughout the country have offered their money, offered their time and offered their homes. “It’s nice that we’re a country that reaches out and is altruistic and compassionate.”

For McDowell and others, only an email separates them from giving the gift of a home to Katrina evacuees. Although it would be temporary housing, McDowell feels it’s the least she and her family can do.

For McCarthy, the images she’s seen on TV of people evacuated from the Gulf Coast are forever. “I can’t believe the suffering that they’re going through,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking about them.”

She recalled coverage she’d seen that showed a family that was forced to separate during the evacuation, and how sad it was to watch them say good-bye. She said she’ll always remember the expression on people’s faces.

“The people had this look — like a combination of shock and complete loss. It was so hard to imagine this was America,” she said. “This is a tragedy of epic proportions.”