Durango resident Loretta Meushaw was volunteering at her first Rainbow Family Gathering in 1998 when she was struck by the homeless teenagers who attended.
“I just didn’t have an idea about the homelessness aspect to it. That really changed me. I’ll never be the same again,” she said.
Rainbow Family Gatherings are temporary, loosely-knit communities that generally form on public land and bring together people who subscribe to nonviolence and alternative lifestyles. They tend to feature music, dancing, drum circles and art, according to various online descriptions. The gatherings also have a reputation for drug use and violence.
Meushaw, who was invited to attend her first gathering by an informal outreach group, mainly cooked and spent time with attendees. She was not a participant in the gathering. During the event, she found herself drawn to help the young teens in attendance, who were primarily runaways between 15 and 16 years old.
That first gathering inspired many years of outreach in Durango and across North America. Between 1998 and 2008, Meushaw attended Rainbow Family Gatherings in Arizona; Arkansas; northern California; Colorado; Wyoming; and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to work as an observer, kitchen helper and a medical first responder. She is an emergency medical technician and has training in addiction counseling and trauma-informed care.
The same year she attended her first Rainbow Family Gathering, she moved to Durango and started working with homeless youth. In 2015, she founded Durango Homeless Youth Advocates, an informal group that encourages homeless youth to continue their education. She estimates she has helped dozens of youth in La Plata County with housing and other needs.
A homeless camper, Charlie, 20, who declined to give her last name, met Meushaw in a Durango park on a rainy day earlier this year. Since they met, Meushaw has helped the young homeless woman with food and clothes.
“She’s basically been like a mom to me,” Charlie said.
Charlie went into foster care in Oregon when she was 7 years old and stayed in the system until she was 18.
Meushaw has encouraged Charlie to attend college and pursue her dream of working in medicine.
“I want to get my life started,” Charlie said.
Before going to school, Charlie needs to get an ID and learn to manage her anxiety, she said.
Meushaw typically works alongside one other volunteer to encourage homeless youth to get their GED diploma and attend college. But before they pursue educational goals, she tries to make sure they have stable shelter. A few young women have lived with Meushaw for a while, when she had a larger home.
Sometimes, youth will be referred to Meushaw by area nonprofits because they are not allowed to stay at the Volunteers of America Durango Community Shelter or at the Southwest Safehouse. Generally, adults and youth should not be housed together for safety reasons, said Rachel Bauske Frasure, VOA division director in Southwest Colorado.
Surveys in 2017 found there are about 40 residents between 12 and 21 years old who are homeless or at risk of being homeless in La Plata County at any given time, according to the La Plata County Collaborative Management Program, a group of youth-serving agencies in La Plata County.
Youth can end up couch-surfing with friends or extended family, or sleeping outside, said Megan C. Kinney, development assistant for the collaborative management program.
In addition to referrals from nonprofits, Meushaw meets with youth at Manna, the Durango soup kitchen where she is a volunteer. She will also approach young homeless residents on the street and attempt to strike up conversations.
“I usually just greet people with a smile and a friendly ‘Hello, how’s it going?’” she said. She also finds reasons to compliment them. If they don’t respond, she will keep walking.
“I wait for them to give me the ‘OK’ to speak to them,” she said.
Meushaw generally assumes the teens she works with have an addiction of some kind to numb the pain they are experiencing, but that doesn’t deter her from helping them.
“I have seen people change and become whole again, and so that’s what kept me going,” she said.
Most of the youth she has worked with come from broken families and either cannot or will not go back to them. She has sat with them while they cried and told her they have no idea where they are going or what they are doing next, she said.
“Most just want to be listened to intently, and many times, I say very little. I just stop talking and let them pour out their life story. Most of the stories rip my heart out, and I hold back my tears till I’m out of their presence,” she said.
Some of the teens she has helped were without their parents because one was in prison and the other was a drug addict, she said.
“Now, if that isn’t being alone in the world, I don’t know what is,” she said.
Her dream for Durango is to have an emergency center that would provide overnight shelter and connect teens with case workers.
The La Plata County Collaborative is also working on the problem and has applied for funding that would support transitional housing for homeless teens.
Without a family, teens don’t have anyone to guide them, and many are vulnerable to predators, Meushaw said.
“We must be an inspiration to them and show them that we believe in them,” she said.