Roberts: H is for Holiday, Hair, Health… and now Homeless
Photo courtesy of Richard Termine / Sesame Workshop

Her name is Lily. She has strawberry-red hair and pink cheeks. She is a muppet on Sesame Street.

A few years ago, Lily was introduced as a child in a family struggling to put food on their table. Today, she is portrayed as a child with no home.

Traditional media and social media around the country trumpeted the social innovation of Sesame Street. An educational children’s television show highlighting a social ill in our country? I remember when watching Sesame Street meant having our children learn the alphabet, or colors, or simple moral principles.

Does it seem a bit audacious to place in front of our children’s innocent eyes a heart-wrenching human issue that we, adults, have failed to solve in this country? Should we be covering our children’s eyes preventing them from seeing all the bad in our world?

Clearly, Sesame Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, don’t think so. And, frankly, we, adults, have been covering our eyes for decades, hoping that homelessness would just go away.

Pretending that homelessness doesn’t exist, pushing people who live on our streets into other neighborhoods, stopping homeless shelters and housing from being built in our backyards. All these actions have sparked the humanitarian crisis we see today on the streets of America.

The stereotypical image of America’s homeless population has been shredded by a simple muppet named Lily. No longer is the homeless population a monolithic group of inebriated single adult men hanging out in the central neighborhoods of our urban cities.

We know now that a large group of people in our country are losing their homes. People like veterans struggling with reintegration back into society, and women fleeing from spousal abuse, and, yes, single moms living on friends’ couches or in cars with their young children.

In fact, one in 20 children in America, or five percent under the age of six, experienced homelessness during the government’s 2014-2015 fiscal year. Here at home the struggle of child homelessness includes our very own wealthy enclave of Silicon Valley where in 2017, 294 families or 1,075 family members (including children) were homeless.

But there are solutions.

Through an innovative homeless prevention initiative initiated by Destination: Home and its partners, from July 1, 2017 to December 31, 2018, 371 homeless families in Santa Clara County were prevented from becoming homeless. Instead of ending up living in cars or shelters, families like Lily’s were able to stay in their own apartments.

Still, even as we are just now waking up to the nation’s homelessness crisis, Sesame Workshop had no choice but to introduce a young character as being homeless. But Lily can be an agent of change.

Many children in our country who are living homeless are able to relate to a child muppet who is experiencing the same feelings, the same problems and the same dreams. With a simple, but poignant little muppet, Sesame Street is creating a new generation of philanthropists by helping the children in America who are already housed see and feel for their peers who are struggling in life. Imagine growing up on television seeing the human struggles of your childhood peers, and the compassionate solutions.

Could it be that a tiny muppet named Lily might help this country end family homelessness? You never know…

I’m glad that Elmo supported Lily and her family’s struggle with homelessness by saying, “We got this…”

I hope all our communities would say the same thing to the families who are at risk of losing their homes: We got this.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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