May 25, 1986 On this day, at least 5 million Americans, from New York’s Battery Park to the Queen Mary’s dock in Long Beach, Calif., held hands in a show of solidarity against hunger and homelessness. The human chain, which stretched 4,125 miles through 16 states — “with some major gaps allowed for safety and others due to a lack of hands” — took months of planning, Richard Harrington wrote in the next day’s Washington Post, not all of it well-organized. Nonetheless, the turnout in places was “thick and good-natured,” and from the perspective of 2018, an incredible if somewhat hokey display of unity in the face of a crisis.
“At 3 p.m. EDT, hands linked and voices were raised to ‘We Are the World’ and ‘Hands Across America,’ pop anthems aimed at hunger, homelessness and hopelessness,” Harrington wrote. “It was America alive, performing self-consciously but with gusto.”
In 1987, Congress passed what became known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act with bipartisan support. The legislation made it easier for homeless people to access food stamps, and authorized emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. President Ronald Reagan, who took part in Hands Across America, reluctantly signed the act into law, citing concerns about whether it was completely constitutional in his official remarks.