For 10-year-old LeRoy Jones, it was the headiest of days—seeing Stevie Wonder and Sugar Ray Leonard up close, playing in a sparkling fountain on the Capitol lawns, and marching with friends he didn't know he had. But as the afternoon sun dimmed in a clear autumn sky, LeRoy's day came to its inevitable end. For him, "going home" would mean its very antithesis: returning to the Washington, D.C., shelter for the homeless where he and four of his brothers share a single bed. "I'd like a house or apartment," said the fourth grader solemnly. "A shelter is a place where you stay if you don't have a home. I don't like it."

For the thousands who rallied at the U.S. Capitol on this October afternoon, LeRoy's declaration summed up their feelings exactly. Fed up with repeated cuts in the federal housing budget (totaling 75 percent over the past eight years), an estimated 40,000 demonstrators, led by a glittering contingent of stars, had taken to the Washington streets, demanding that the government ensure affordable shelter for everyone.

United under the banner of Housing Now!, groups ranging from the Gray Panthers and striking Eastern Airlines pilots to college students, AIDS activists and PTA members joined several hundred of the homeless, filling the broad city avenues. A caravan of children tugged red wagons, each piled high with notes to U.S. officials from kids around the country. One carefully lettered plea was plaintively clear. "Dear President Bush," it read. "You have plenty of room in the White House while some families have no place to live."

To get their message across, many marchers had started their trek to the Capitol from distant states. One homeless woman, who calls herself Pegasus ("like the fine horse," she said), lived up to her name by striding all the way from Arkansas over 2½ months. Several hundred from New York also braved an arduous 28-day journey on foot, during which five pregnant homeless women suffered miscarriages. "We assume homeless people are lazy," said one New Yorker, calling himself Brother Sieed. "The fact that we walked 250 miles, even through the rains of Hurricane Hugo, proves we are not lazy."

The most visible delegation was the one from Hollywood, which had been mobilized by activist Mitch Snyder some months ago. As he recalled, "We said to these folks, 'Come and bring your presence and your popularity and your hearts and your hands, and lend your magic to this effort.' " Led by Valerie Harper, Jon Voight and Casey and Jean Kasem, several dozen luminaries—among them Rita Coolidge, Danny Glover, Christopher Reeve and Edward James Olmos—responded to Snyder's appeal.

At one point, though, the crowd seemed to feel the West Coast coterie was diverting attention from the issue at hand. During Harper's lengthy introduction of the stars, the throng erupted in a chant, "TV later, housing now!" Earlier, Harper had staunchly defended the celebrities' involvement. "What better to do with money and goods and wealth than share it with people who don't even have a place to lay their head?" she asked. "You don't lose your citizenship if you become rich or famous or you are a star."

For the most part, the Hollywood visitors sought to spend time with the homeless rather than with each other. In some cases, the source of their compassion was personal. "My father died when I was 15, and my mother lived off Social Security," said Dynasty's Linda Evans, who shared eggs and grits with residents of a local shelter. "We never really had any security, so I understand wanting some security, some place you know won't be taken away."

Actor Lou Gossett also had reason to empathize. "Sharron, my young son who is adopted—he was homeless," said Gossett, who brought the boy along. "He's here to see whence he came."

Others, too, were ardent in their support. Alfre (Miss Firecracker) Woodard noted an ironic contrast between lawmakers' fierce stand against flag burning and their relative apathy toward homelessness. "The flag does not freeze in the winter outside," she said. "Flags don't cry when they're hungry. And flags don't bleed. But people do."

Assessing the day, Malibu's honorary mayor, Martin Sheen, who raised hackles in his community last May when he proclaimed it a sanctuary for the homeless, was cautiously optimistic: "I don't think you'll see any results in the near future, but I'm damn sure the message will get through." At the very least, the march had won converts. "I've never done anything like this before," said actress Heather Locklear. "It felt so powerful with so many different rivers of people coming together. It's changed me, and I want to do all I can."

When the rally came to a close and the marchers dispersed, the lucky ones had homes to go to. Earlier in the day, Tamara Tally, 9, a young shelter resident, had vowed, "I'm going to have a red house with a green roof." The marchers hoped their efforts had made it more likely that Tamara's simple wish—and those of an estimated 3 million other homeless Americans—would someday come true.

—Jeannie Park, Katy Kelly, Linda Kramer and Sarah Skolnik in Washington