Apparently, my wife and I aren't alone. We know we can donate money to various organizations like the Red Cross. We also know that we can help in some other direct way as well. For example, the idea of offering up some space in our home and the transportation costs to get here has crossed our minds. But, while considering that option, we also have to be realistic about our personal situation. Our house is going through a renovation project right now and we have two very young children and one teenager whose safety and well-being is our number one concern. How do you let someone into your home sight unseen? For example, how would you know if someone was really a victim of Katrina or not?
Through Dave Winer and Dan Gillmor's blogs, I found my way to two online lists of people and families who are opening up their homes. One on Craig's List and the other run by moveon.org (under the domain of hurricanehousing.org). As you can tell by the listings on these sites, many people are looking to manage the risk of whom they let into their homes by specifying the type of people they're willing to help. Many ads for example are offering housing for children only. Others specify single mothers with children (is that really less risky than other "configurations"?). Some look for like-minded people in terms of lifestyle. There are plenty of gay households that are opening their doors, but to gay people only. Still others have just opened their homes to families of any size with pets of any kind (wow). Some are genuinely heartwarming. One I saw said "We don't have much space. But what little we have, we'd be willing to split it with someone in need."
There has been some criticism of Americans for not reaching out to the victims of Katrina. If that's your opinion, go read these housing listings. They may change your mind. Reaching out in the immediate days after a crisis like this is not that easy yet Americans are clearly already doing the best they can do. How does one reach out? There's no infrastructure there. You can't call a displaced person in New Orleans SuperDome and ask "How can I help you personally?" The agencies in charge have requested that good Samaritans looking to help stay away from the area (as well as other refugee centers) and contribute to charities instead. Those contributions have undoubtedly started and already, NBC is putting on a benefit concert tonight that will be aired on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. And then there are these electronic listings on the Web. The public relief engine is clearly on full scale ramp-up.
Now that those tech listings on are online, and growing by the minute, it's time for the tech industry to step up. Right now, there are thousands of people in refugee centers with no way to see what's listed on Craig's List or on hurricanehousing.org. Now is the time for a big tech company or a group of them to step forward to help with the matchmaking. It doesn't matter how it's done. They could put in a bank of systems like the kind you see at trade shows and man it with support staff. Or set up manned kiosks where refugees can line up and work with "screeners" that help refugees as well as those offering free housing double check the "fit" before closing the deal. I'm sure there are some other legal and agency-related challenges to doing this (see the bottom of katrinahousing.org for a list of the realities). But President Bush has asked Americans to step up and now that they are, someone has to fill in the gap. If there ever was an opportunity to prove the human value of all that the tech industry invented over the last two decades, this is it.
Finally, after much deliberation, my wife and I have decided that, with the construction currently taking place on our home (to build a guest room, no less), now is not the best time to have guests over. But, through those lists, we found a few other local households that are offering space in their homes as long as the refugees can find a way to get here to Massachusetts. As far as I can tell, most of the refugees wouldn't be able to do that. I've emailed some of those local households to see if they'd be open to "teaming up" and letting my wife and I cover the cost of getting here as well as other expenses once they're here. It's time for everyone to do their part. What are you doing?