Matt Driscoll

She’s the ‘street doula’ behind the Homeless Humans of Tacoma. ‘They’re just like you and me’

For roughly 40 years, Patti Ramos was a doula, assisting with more than 3,000 births.

Now, Ramos has something new to consume her. There’s no paycheck involved this time — the 66-year-old gets by on Social Security income — but the hours are still long and the connections are still intimate.

Today, Ramos, 66 and retired, considers herself a “street doula.”

It’s a fitting description.

That’s because Ramos is the one-woman force behind the Homeless Humans of Tacoma project. For the last four years, she has spent her days and nights visiting area homeless encampments with her camera and documenting the stories she finds — posting them to the project’s Facebook page, which now has more than 9,000 followers.

More importantly, Ramos says, her outreach involves relationship building, fostering trust over time and then — with the help of donations from the community — helping the people she encounters get what they need to survive.

Sometimes, that means finding a wheelchair for someone in need. Other times, it means collecting food donations or scrounging up a new pair of eyeglasses.

“We’re not giving birth, but I’m still comforting them and nurturing them and doing my best to ease their pain and suffering,” Ramos says of her work, which has become a full-time endeavor.

“It’s the relationships,” Ramos continues. “There have been a few people whose life I think has been saved, and not because of me, but because people cared and people followed through with their donations and gifts, and that person then felt a greater sense of self worth.”

Examples of Ramos’ work, and the impact it can have on those she encounters, are big and small.

We spoke Tuesday morning. Later that day, Ramos was set to drop off a set of tickets to a formerly homeless mother who wanted to take her daughter to the Washington State Fair for the first time. She had also just received a text message about a woman with cancer sleeping in a doorway, and she was quickly making plans to visit her.

“Every day, I feel like I’m on call, just like I was when I was a birth doula,” Ramos says. “It’s fascinating, and it’s all consuming. Every day — every single day — I am working on this. I don’t want to imply it’s a job. I just feel like I’m committed to it. The need is so great.”

“Of course, there are times when I feel incredibly overwhelmed,” she adds. “Just drained by the sadness and the heartache out there.”

Beyond the immediate impact of helping those experiencing homelessness, Ramos, who considers herself a photo journalist, also hopes her work encourages empathy from the community.

The photos Ramos takes are gripping, while the often painful stories she regularly hears — and then documents in writing — help to break down walls and stereotypes.

Ramos hopes her efforts help to “humanize” people experiencing homelessness, particularly as the region’s homelessness crisis has grown increasingly divisive.

Specifically, Ramos recalled 62-year-old Rich, who she profiled on the Homeless Humans of Tacoma Facebook page earlier this year.

Thirty years ago, on New Year’s Eve, the car Rich was driving with his pregnant partner was hit by a drunk driver.

“I buried my son two weeks later, and she never woke up from the coma. After losing them, I didn’t want to live,” Ramos remembered Rich telling her. “I began drinking heavy. Lost everything. It has been a hard life. So here I am, a loner with a past, existing in this tent. It’s a miracle I am still breathing.”

Ramos says stories like these are powerful. They reveal both the true toll of pain and trauma that so often goes hand in hand with homelessness, she says, and the negative repercussions when anti-homelessness rhetoric ramps up and loses sight of the human beings at the center of the crisis.

“I want people to be able to just take a minute, and instead of judging these people, take a moment to acknowledge the fact that something brought them to this situation,” Ramos explains.

“I doubt that any of them chose homelessness, or drug addiction, or mental illness or domestic violence,” she adds. “Circumstances led to the situation that they’re in now, and getting out of it is no easy task.”

On Thursday, during Tacoma’s Third Thursday Artwalk, Ramos will be at The Swiss in Tacoma, where many of her photographs will be on display throughout the month. She’ll be discussing her work and also hoping to build on the progress her Homeless Humans of Tacoma project has already made.

“You hear their stories, and you start to realize they’re just like you and me in many cases,” Ramos says of her project.

“My intention has always been to approach this with love, and with compassion and with respect and kindness,” she says.

“I think that has helped.”

Third Thursday Artwalk Reception with Patti Ramos

Where: The Swiss in Tacoma, 1904 Jefferson Ave.

When: Thursday, Sept. 19, 6 to 8 p.m.