Homeless puppet helps kids talk about life on SF’s streets

On Guard column header Joe

Maliya is only 8-years-old and midway through third grade, but she already knows more than the average adult about San Francisco’s most pernicious crisis: Homelessness.

The young San Francisco native, whose family is among the hundreds struggling with homelessness in The City, has a new friend to talk about those feelings with this week, after the Coalition on Homelessness introduced her to “Sweepy,” the new puppet star of their soon-to-launch educational video series aimed at The City’s homeless children.

Sweepy’s felt may be pink, and her hair may be cloth, but her San Francisco Giants jacket and goofy appearance were a hit with Malia. In the coalition’s first video featuring Sweepy, the puppet and Maliya talk about the “nice” people at homeless shelters, their favorite books about farting and the scary prospect of leaving The City by the Bay.

“My parents are trying to get into a shelter, but I don’t know what that means,” Sweepy tells Maliya, and asks for her advice.

“It’s kind of like a house, but it’s not. You have to be there at a certain time,” Maliya tells the puppet. “Don’t be scared. The people are nice.”

The two even share a moment of wicked laughter, as Sweepy shares her favorite book is “Walter the Farting Dog.”

“That’s a real book!?” Maliya asks, incredulously, before bursting into laughter.

Sweepy’s wicked humor comes from her human puppeteer, Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness who sewed together Sweepy herself.

While some of the coalition’s videos will be aimed at kids, Cutler also wants to keep the door open for possible parody videos starring Sweepy, aimed at educating adults about life for homeless people on the streets, from losing beloved items in tent sweeps to receiving quality of life citations when unhoused people sit down to rest.

Cutler told me Sweepy was inspired by Sesame Street’s muppet character Lily, who while starring on the show since 2011 (according to the Sesame Street website) was newly introduced as homeless in 2018 — a first for the brand, and part of a broader initiative by the Sesame Workshop nonprofit to help the growing number of homeless children in the United States.

That’s 2.5 million homeless children in the U.S., to be specific, the nonprofit noted in a December press statement.

Maliya and her three siblings are in that count. Their mother, Tracey, is a peer organizer at the coalition.

“It was pretty natural for (Maliya) to talk to the puppet as if she was another child,” Cutler told me. In the video, Cutler said, Maliya was “focused on helping the puppet to feel less afraid, because she understands the fear.”

You can hear that in Maliya’s voice on the video, as she tries to warn Sweepy (so named for sweeps of homeless encampments) about police on the street.

“What can you tell me about homelessness in San Francisco?” Sweepy asks Maliya, in the video.

“You have to watch out for police … Do you have a tent?” Maliya asks. “I do,” Sweepy answers. “You have to watch out for police sweeping,” Maliya advises, “because they don’t like homeless people.”

But perhaps the most raw moment in the video comes when Sweepy asks Maliya a seemingly benign question: “Do you like living in San Francisco?”

“Yes, and I don’t want to leave,” Maliya says. “But something tells me it’ll be hard to stay here.”

You can watch a draft video of Sweepy on Cutler’s Facebook page.

(Coalition on Homelessness)

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Maliya’s name.
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