Hands Across America uplifts participants; will it help poor?

While the organizers of Hands Across America continue to count participants and pledges from Sunday's transcontinental handholding-for-the-hungry-and-homeless -- the final tally is not expected until late summer -- debate goes on over the event's symbolism and substance. ``It's a very respectable gesture,'' says Rhonda Meister, director of the St. Joseph's Center in Venice, Calif., who participated along with about 90 volunteers and clients from her privately run shelter. The shelter will receive $10,000 from funds generated by the event.

But, she adds, the need for individual citizens to become so actively involved in meeting the needs of the hungry and homeless ``points up a tremendous failure of government at all levels, which says the private sector can address these issues without its leadership or commitment.''

Ms. Meister cites recent figures of 2 million to 3 million homeless people in America -- more than during the Great Depression. At the same time, she says, the number of public-housing units completed yearly has dropped from 40,000 units in 1979 to 23,000 in '83. The rehabilitation of existing units is down from 203,113 units in 1979 to 55,120 in '83.

``If [Hands Across America] could frame a responsible discussion on homelessness in America, it would begin to be a piece of the solution, something more tangible than standing in line,'' Meister says.

``If we only raised the money and then walked away from [the problems of the hungry and homeless], then indeed this would only be a patchwork gesture,'' said Marty Rogol. Mr. Rogol and Ken Kragen are the leaders of USA for Africa, the organization that raised $42 million for victims of famine in Africa before heading up Hands Across America.

``But 40 percent of the funds generated are earmarked for a long-term domestic program to continually lobby for these people, to make sure their needs are not forgotten,'' Rogol says.

Rogol emphasizes his organization's desire to ``wake up'' an entire nation to conditions that exist on its own doorstep. ``Giving visibility to a problem that many didn't even know existed is the first, and perhaps biggest, step to addressing it substantively,'' he says.

But Prof. Jay Demerath, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says that Hands Across America ``is the quintessential American response to alleviate conscience -- treating a profoundly deep-seated societal shortcoming like it could be helped by a Coke commercial from the '70s.''

Professor Demerath asked students what the human-chain-as-consciousness-raising method tells Americans about themselves. ``We decided it's another example of politics by proxy, allowing people to participate without full involvement, easing guilt by a kind of naive nobility that is very superficial,'' he said.

Demerath says one reason that real solutions to the problems are not being discussed is that the cures will come at the expense of the very middle class that designs and thrives on such gestures. ``This is a middle-class solution to a lower-class problem,'' he says.

Despite the criticisms, the organizers expect proceeds from Sunday's project to exceed $50 million. This is less than an earlier projection that Hands Across America would raise $100 million, but it is still higher than was expected in the last hours before the event.

When the event was over, organizers quit worrying about the much-publicized gaps in the chain across parts of the Midwest and West, and instead focused on the many creative ways links were maintained. Links were forged by a row of cows in Maryland, divers in the Susquehanna River in that state, a contingent of tourists visiting the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and members of a wedding reception in Philadelphia.

Based on reports from local organizers of the event, it is estimated that as many as 4.5 million people joined the winding, 4,150-mile chain that extended from New York City to Long Beach, Calif.

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