How Pat LaMarche and ‘Priscilla the Princess of the Park’ Are Dismantling Stigma Surrounding Homelessness

LaMarche’s book series illuminates the often downplayed humanity of homeless populations, underscoring how the issue is the result of ineffective policy, not personal fault.

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Writer-activist Pat LaMarche wants people to give a damn—about homelessness, poverty, ageism and gender and racial injustice.

Her latest effort, a book series about an unhoused elder who sleeps in a public park, features Priscilla and a ragtag group of kids who befriend her. They’re a diverse lot, able-bodied and not, with an uncanny ability to look past Priscilla’s tattered clothing to see a wise and witty survivor who likes nothing more than a pretend tea party every Tuesday afternoon. Charming and wily, Priscilla is an unlikely teacher, but as she shares her life experiences, she upends stigma about housing insecurity and enhances the understanding and empathy of everyone she encounters.

Visually appealing illustrations by Bonnie Tweedy Shaw add an unusual mix of whimsy and heft to LaMarche’s storytelling.

“I’m a daughter of Irish immigrants,” LaMarche told Ms. “My grandmother left Ireland because her family could not feed her so I grew up knowing firsthand the impact of being hungry and poor.” 

Indeed, LaMarche credits her upbringing with motivating her work to combat the ill effects of penury. Her first effort, she says, goes back to the late 1980s when she volunteered at a homeless shelter in Bangor, Maine. “I was a broke single mom, but I cooked dinner for the residents once a month,” she said.

In the decades since, LaMarche’s commitment has never wavered, and she has not only worked as a direct service provider in several shelters but has also been a social justice reporter. Whether on radio or in print, her newscasts have been singularly focused on the struggles of low-income people.

LaMarche has also campaigned for public office. As the running mate of 2004 Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, she says that she wanted to use that year’s election to elevate domestic social issues.

“I was doing a radio program up in Maine in 2003 and one morning, as I was driving to work, I heard Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry tell a reporter that he would be willing to appoint anti-choice judges to the bench. That was it,” she recalled. “David had been pestering me to run for vice president and after Kerry threw me and every other woman in the U.S. under the bus, I said ‘yes.’ It was high time to talk about issues that mattered.” 

Nonetheless, LaMarche told Cobb that her candidacy was conditional. “I made clear that I wanted to stay in homeless shelters throughout my travels and use my candidacy to tell people’s stories and highlight the conditions I saw.”

Post-election, LaMarche turned to the detailed journals she kept through the campaign. These accounts formed the basis of her first book, Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States, released by Sunbury Press in 2006.

Shortly after the book’s publication, LaMarche moved from Maine to Carlisle, Pa., where she’d been offered a job in a shelter. She lasted only a few years. “I’m an empath,” she said. “I’d witnessed so much abject poverty, so much systemic cruelty, that I had to step away, but I needed money so I took a job as a waitress in a coffee shop in town.”  It quickly became what she calls her “downtown office.”

“Homeless people knew to find me there and the restaurant let me feed them,” she said. “But there was one woman who never came in. She slept in the square and I was told that even though the police hassled her, she would not move. Her name was Priscilla and to me she became Priscilla, the princess of the park.”

Unlike the titular Priscilla of the book series, LaMarche reports that the real Priscilla is now settled in public housing. There are, however, some similarities. “The actual Priscilla has a lot of fears and a lot of rage. I mean, it’s hard not to be frustrated by some of the bureaucratic stupidity—black-and-white rules that are senseless and punishing—that every poor person encounters.” 

To wit: In Priscilla and the Bishop’s Gambit, Ken, a homeless single father of twins, learns that because he became homeless before the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his children are ineligible for relief money.  Worse, he is threatened with the loss of his kids after a well-meaning stranger informs child welfare authorities that the family is living in their car.

“Not to include the pandemic felt ethically irresponsible,” LaMarche said, “COVID has been hard for everyone, but absolutely everything became 1000 times harder for folks without a permanent place to live and I wanted to illustrate some of the challenges they’ve faced. I also wanted to emphasize that poverty is not a reason to remove children from the custody of loving caretakers.”

After this statement, LaMarche took a moment to collect herself, then continued. “Losing your home is nothing compared to losing your family, A few years ago I met a mother and son who had escaped domestic violence with only the clothes on their backs. They repeatedly told me that they were filled with gratitude that they did not have to lose each other to get to safety.”

That statement stayed with LaMarche and she says that every character in the books is an amalgam of people she’s known and conversations she’s had.

“The Priscilla in the books embodies the characteristics of about seven different people,” she said. “I want her to be a sympathetic, but angry, spokeswoman. She does not trust people, especially adults, easily. I hope she will help readers see that poverty is the reason for homelessness. Period.”

As for her intended audience, LaMarche says she hopes kids as young as eight will read the books with their parents, guardians, grandparents, teachers or other trusted adults.

“At least 1.5 million school-aged children are living without permanent housing,” she said. “Housing-insecure kids don’t typically see themselves reflected in books and I hope that the series will help them understand that they are not the only ones going through hard times.”

Getting the books into fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, as well as school and public libraries, she says, is a gargantuan task, but she hopes that people will donate copies to programs in their communities.

“You never know what story will turn someone’s heart,” she said. “I hope people will read the Priscilla books and be motivated to get involved in fighting for social justice, housing justice, and equity for all.”  

The Priscilla series includes: Priscilla The Princess of the Park; Priscilla and the Snow Fort; and Priscilla and the Bishop’s Gambit. All are published by The Charles Bruce Foundation; 100 percent of the proceeds of book sales benefit programs for the homeless. A fourth and final Priscilla book will be released at the end of 2021.

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About

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith Magazine and Blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review, The Indypendent, and The Progressive. She tweets at eleanorjbader.