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Advocates work to reach 'missing' unhoused children in Atlanta

WXIA-TV Atlanta 4/8/2022 Savannah Levins

In 2020, more than 6,000 Georgia students experiencing homelessness went missing from schools’ rolls. Nationally, that number is close to 400,000.

Now local advocates are on a mission to find them and help them succeed. 

From 2014 to 2019, the Georgia Department of Education clocked about 40,000 students experiencing homelessness, give or take a couple hundred over the years.

But in 2020, it dropped by 6,046.

When schools made the shift to virtual learning, they lost track of those thousands of vulnerable students listed as unhoused. Often, with no way to reach or help them.

“Mom and dad or whoever their caretaker is at the moment is understandably trying to get a roof over their head, trying to get a job because they lost their job during COVID" explained Jennie Lobato. "So, children are lost.”

Lobato founded Drawchange, a nonprofit with the mission of reaching Atlanta area kids experiencing homelessness through art.

"We use the art therapy principles to help them process and to help them express and to help them guide them through this very confusing moment that they're experiencing in their life," she explained.

The Georgia Department of Education has committed more than $4 million to find and assist students experiencing homelessness in 2023.

But, many advocates like Lobato aren't waiting.

"There is an immediate need that needs to be met," she said. "So, we come in and we are a support system for the family."

Lobato said her own life experiences led her to the advocacy work she does now.

“I was born and raised in the inner city in Jersey City, I also am a first generation American," she said. "Art was always my refuge. I had a huge box of coloring books and a bunch of crayons. When I was creating, I wasn't thinking about what was going on.”

That led her to a full scholarship for art school and a career in graphic design, and eventually to founding Drawchange.

"We go to them and we have a tailored curriculum that is focused around boosting their self-esteem, empowering them to know that they can be anything they want to be in life,' Lobato said.

The Georgia DOE reports that the extra money allocated for them in 2023 will allow them to provide extra transport for unhoused kids to and from class and activities, purchase devices like laptops and hotspots for them, and even pay for temporary housing in emergency situations. 

Meanwhile, organizations like Drawchange work every day to make sure the kids feel seen. 

"We need to see them for who they can be, not for where they currently are," Lobato concluded.

To learn more about Drawchange and how you can help their mission, visit their website here.

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