It may not be exactly a match made in heaven, but so far it has worked.

The two women, living in different parts of Montgomery County, didn't know each other, but both decided to take their problem to an unusual matchmaker: a federally funded local program that pairs those with room in their homes with people needing affordable housing.

Ruth Linthichum was divorced when she was in her late 50s. She lost her house in the divorce and now holds three jobs--as a real estate agent, a staff assistant at the Department of Health and Human Services and as a part-time phone solicitor. Her job at HHS is about to be abolished in the RIF (reduction in force) of her entire bureau.

Loraine Feick lost her house when she was divorced in her late 50s. She holds two jobs, selling furniture at Kimels and shoes at Hahns. The money from her divorce settlement is gone, having been used to send one of her five children through college and for basic living expenses during tough times.

The women, now both in their 60s, figure in a local success story.

Having found each other with the help of a pilot home-sharing program called Operation Match, they now share and split expenses on the new three-bedroom, three-bath town house that Linthichum bought in the Rockville area following her divorce.

Started as a modest experiment in Montgomery County 3 1/2 years ago, the Operation Match program now is set to open offices this month in the District and throughout suburban Virginia and Maryland. The Council of Governments developed the areawide plan, and has budgeted $278,000 for the program out of a $1.5 million housing grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While there are other home-sharing experiments in other parts of the country, Operation Match officials say theirs is the only one that caters to all age groups and situations, rather than just the elderly, and the only one that is scheduled to operate throughout an entire metropolitan area. A HUD spokesman said that the department also believes the program to be unique in the country.

There is no fee for the program's services, either to those with space in their homes ("providers") or those looking for affordable rooms to rent or trade services for ("seekers"). The Montgomery County office is funded with grants from HUD, the county and public and private sources, according to the officials.

"A lot of women are in this situation," says Linthichum, talking about how both she and Feick found themselves living alone and struggling to meet expenses. "It's becoming a necessity to share ."

But Linthichum, an outgoing woman who is a real estate agent for Long and Foster, said finances were not the only issue for either of them: "We were not only looking for lowered expenses; we were looking for companionship, too."

Feick agrees that she was getting lonely, despite an active schedule that includes two jobs and plans to go back to college soon. "I like to come home and have a glass of wine and talk with someone before I go to bed," she said. "Before, I wasn't living; I was only existing."

Linthichum and Feick are typical of matches under the Montgomery County program in several ways: Women make up about 75 percent of the clients, many of whom are divorced. Those providing houses have a broad range of incomes, while virtually all of the tenants have incomes of less than $13,000 a year. There is no income or residency limitations on participants, however.

Officials say the program appeals particularly to single parents, those in need of short-term housing, and the elderly or handicapped who may exchange rooms or apartments in their homes for care rather than rent. A majority of participants are aged 22 to 35, while about 20 percent are elderly.

The program officials screen the owners and housing seekers, asking questions about habits and preferences and visiting the home to be shared. The space available ranges from a room with cooking privileges to separate apartments with private entrances.

Rents average about $225 a month for one bedroom and shared living space, according to program officials. The owners often could get much higher rents, but the value of the Operation Match pairing system makes it worth their while to keep the rates at levels the program's applicants can afford, they say.

The potential homesharers and tenants are given a list of people the program feels would make a suitable match, and it is up to the clients to make contact. Most people are placed in six weeks, the program coordinators say.

The partners may form a sort of Ying-and-Yang complement. There's the case, for example, of the woman willing to exchange an inexpensive room for someone to paint her house. "We found her a house painter" as a tenant, said program founder and consultant Marjorie Levenson, "and I told him to paint very slowly."

The more particular the homeowners and tenants are, the more difficult they are to match. A woman in Takoma Park has specified that she wants "an older man with a certain social status," Levenson said by way of example. "We had to tell her we just don't get many college presidents."

Prohibitions against smoking and pets may prevent an otherwise beautiful match, the officials said. Taking this into account, Ruth Linthichum, a nonsmoker, decided she wouldn't close her options by specifying another nonsmoker, and she says this turned out to be the right decision because matched homesharer Feick smokes.

Since the program began 3 1/2 years ago, it has accepted 2,245 applications from seekers and providers and has made 325 matches. Those it didn't match may have dropped out of the program or made other arrangements before they found a suitable pairing, Levenson said. Currently there are more than 300 potential providers and more than 100 seekers, of which about 50 are actively looking.

The hardest requests to fulfill are those for frequent services from tenants, such as for continual care of an elderly person. "We have to consider that with a job, and even with a salary added on, this may be difficult," Levenson said.

But a single mother may want to stay home with a young child and may therefore be willing to trade babysitting and household duties for a free room, or the partners may take turns watching after each others children.

A parent with a child generally is hard to place, however, and the program doesn't even try when there is more than one child, said Ruth Craigen, Operation Match coordinator.

While some are looking for services or companionship, for others it is strictly a matter of economics that sends them to Operation Match.

One divorced businesswoman with three teenage children and a two-story Colonial in Potomac found she had more space than she needed and less money. The Operation Match program paired her with a recently divorced man who rents out the basement with a private entrance and shares the kitchen and phone.

Their paths don't cross often, and that's just fine with both of them.

"It's been perfect. He needs his space, and so do I," she said. Of the women who were on the Operation Match list, "it seemed to me they were looking for a friend, and I just wasn't."

Jerry Fries, chief of financial reports at the Interior Department, said the set-up has given him enough room to accommodate his sons on weekend visits at a price he could afford.

"I needed a place I could call my own and some space," said Fries. "I feel more at ease now."

In another part of Montgomery County, two retired elderly nurses share a small, ivy-covered home surrounded by a chain-link fence and including a yapping, jumping dog.

While they have had no crises to deal with so far, "it's nice to know there's someone there to call the doctor if need be," said the owner of the home. "I don't like to live in a house all by myself."

At the same time, they have quarters separate enough to insure the privacy they are both used to. "She has her place to pout, and I have mine," the owner explained with a smile.

The tenant, a widow with a grown son and daughter, turned to sharing when her apartment building was converted to condominiums and she did not want to buy. To move in, she had to give up her furniture, which would not fit into the already furnished basement apartment she now occupies, a disencumbrance that program officials say some find difficult but which she did not.

For the owner of the home, it was getting more difficult to keep up with rising home costs, such as taxes and heat.

So, she says, she developed a philosophical attitude: "Why pull out your hair; why not share."