'Sesame Street' Takes on Homelessness

Lily (right) is the first homeless Muppet on 'Sesame Street.'. Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop

In its nearly 50 years of teaching children (and, let's be honest, a whole lot of adults) about the world, "Sesame Street" hasn't shied away from addressing tough issues. Characters on or associated with the program have grappled with death, HIV, bullying, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, autism, immigration and parental incarceration over the years.

This week, the show will tackle homelessness, as a character named Lily deals with the uncertainties of not having a permanent home. (But fans were quick to point out that another character, Oscar the Grouch, has been living in a trashcan for decades. Is that homelessness or personal choice? Oscar may be perfectly content living his grouchy life in a trash bin. We don’t really know — in fact, that’s one of the big questions many people have about this issue. So way to dig into the issue, internet!)

Being homeless as a child

This isn't Lily's first appearance on the show. The soft-spoken character was introduced in 2011 to highlight children and families dealing with food insecurity, or not knowing when their next meal would be. Lily hasn't been a recurring character in the franchise, appearing only in the special about food insecurity titled "Growing Hope Against Hunger."

Lily's return marks the launch of a similar initiative, this time about homelessness. In a series of web-only videos, Lily's story tackles the emotions surrounding homelessness from the perspective of a child. Characters, including Elmo, will engage with Lily about coping mechanisms, how to explain to others that you're homeless and the benefits of asking people for help.

In the video below, Sofia, the real-life character Lily's family sometimes stays with, shows Lily how she's surrounded by a number of people who love and care about her.

"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," Sherrie Westin, president of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said in a statement.

"We want to help disrupt that cycle by comforting children, empowering them, and giving them hope for the future. We want them to know that they are not alone and home is more than a house or an apartment — home is wherever the love lives."

In addition to the videos, free online materials are available to families and professionals to help children develop a sense of "community, route and predictability." On Dec. 13 at 4 p.m. EST, Sesame Street in Communities will host an interactive conversation on Facebook and YouTube that features a panel of experts that the organization hopes will raise awareness of homelessness and its effects on children.

In this video, Elmo and Rosita talk to children who don't currently have homes and ask them what the concept of home means to them.

Raising awareness

A 2017 statement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that homelessness increased that year by .7 percent compared to 2016 and that 553,742 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2017.

And children aren't immune to the problem. About 1 in 20 children under the age of 6 experienced homelessness between 2014 and 2015, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. However, exact numbers are difficult to come by since definitions of "homelessness" vary and the rates differ based on age.

That "Sesame Street" is featuring the issue in videos and with educational materials is both heartening and disheartening in some ways, as Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told CNN.

"It's like, wow, we've gotten to this point where this era of homelessness has become so common and so entrenched that it begs a character on 'Sesame Street' to help children understand what they're seeing in their communities," Hustings said.

"But we know that 'Sesame Street' is coming from a place of education and really wants to build awareness and understanding of all of our community members, despite differences, which is really amazing."