Earlier this month, longtime U.S. children’s show Sesame Street, introduced its first homeless character, a 7-year-old muppet named Lily. Lily was launched as part of the show’s Sesame Street in Communities program.
“I think we tend to think of homelessness as an adult issue and don’t always look at it through the lens of a child, and we realize that Sesame has a unique ability to do that, to look at tough issues with the lens of a child,” Sherrie Westin, President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, told CNN.
Lily, a bright pink muppet, first appeared on the show in 2011, but was reintroduced earlier this month. In her first appearance in 2011, Lily and her family lacked access to food. At the time, her character was developed as part of the program’s food insecurity initiative. The relaunch of the character has expanded her storyline to show her and her family staying with friends and unable to find a home to spotlight homelessness.
Her most recent appearance will track her journey of homelessness through a series of bilingual resources, including online videos and stories. Her story will not be explored in detail in the television program.
Westin explained that one of the aims of introducing a character like Lily is to help children who can identify with the muppet, but also to raise empathy and understanding among others who may not be experiencing homelessness. Sesame Street also aims to help homeless children feel “less alone,” according to her.
Lily made an appearance in the episode “A Rainbow Kind of Day,” when she fondly recalls her room at her parent’s apartment as she, Elmo and an adult named Sofia paint the purple section of a rainbow, saying that “it doesn’t really feel like a rainbow kind of day.” Sofia explains to her that home is about more than just a house, but that home is where the love is.
“We know children experiencing homelessness are often caught up in a devastating cycle of trauma—the lack of affordable housing, poverty, domestic violence, or other trauma that caused them to lose their home, the trauma of actually losing their home, and the daily trauma of the uncertainty and insecurity of being homeless,” Westin said in a statement.
Some fans responded by pointing out that Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch, who lives in a trashcan and is also clearly homeless, has been on the show since 1969. Comedian Dave Chappelle mocked the showmakers’ treatment of Oscar the Grouch’s homelessness in his 2000 comedy special Dave Chappelle: Killin’ Them Softly
According to statistics acquired by the Sesame Workshop from the Office of Head Start, there are more than 2.5 million children experiencing homelessness across the U.S., 1.2 million of whom are under the age of six. Sesame Workshop also notes that, according to the Office of Head Start, “there has been a 100 percent increase in enrollment of children experiencing homelessness in Head Start and Early Head Start programs over the past decade, with 2016-17 marking a record number.”
In many cases, cities have been slow to respond to homelessness, although some have found innovative ways to make the streets safer for rough sleepers. In February, Las Vegas, home to the eight largest homeless population in the U.S., introduced Corridor for Hope, a permanent encampment for the city’s homeless.