Peter was selected as “Hero of the month” from Century 21 and the Boston Bruins Foundation. Peter will be @ the game on Tuesday, December 17 and will appear on the jumbo tron. Check back soon, this post will be updated.
BROCKTON — On a radiant fall morning, a small crowd of people mill around a parking lot behind a drop-in center for the homeless. Some are rifling through the open bins of clothes stacked on a few buffet tables, and occasionally one person climbs into a boxy silver trailer that looks like the kind towed around by landscapers and contractors.
But instead of holding tools, the trailer has three tight compartments, each with a shower stall and tiled floor. One by one, the homeless tote toiletries, fresh clothing, and towels into the trailer, and emerge a few minutes later, shining skin and damp hair, usually looking a bit more cheerful than before.
By Liz Neisloss
Peter Kelleher removed the lid from a simmering pot of soup and a large waft of steam rose up.
“This is gonna be delicious,” he said, stirring his signature “All-American Hamburg soup.” It’s a batch meant to feed 75 to 80 people.
Kelleher is known as “the Soupman” — a nickname he picked up after he began making soup nearly two years ago and ladling it out to people experiencing homelessness in Brockton, Mass., from the back of his pickup truck.
Personal tragedy triggered his mission. In 2016, Kelleher’s son Travis, who had battled opioid addiction for years, died from a drug overdose while experiencing homelessness in Maine. Kelleher, who is from Bridgewater, said his grief compelled him to begin making soup to serve those without homes and, urged on by the overwhelming need he saw, began giving out backpacks filled with gloves and toiletries. That urge still drives him today and his mission has grown.
Soup is now served with bagged lunches. As Kelleher recently prepared his soup, a father and his 11-year-old daughter dropped off dozens of bagged lunches made by local families. School children decorate the paper bags with colorful drawings and their own messages of encouragement.
In 2018, “The Soupman” became a Massachusetts state registered nonprofit, and now operates out of a locally donated school bus and a van — both painted bright red and emblazoned with “Help Us Help the Homeless” and “SupportTheSoupman.org.” An array of local businesses and a small army of volunteers fill out his ranks.
Massachusetts has an estimated 20,000 people experiencing homelessness, according to the most recent 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, that number was a 14% increase from the prior year.
Kelleher’s large bus serves as a “closet” for the clothing donations. On a recent freezing day in Brockton, volunteers sorted coats according to size in a parking lot where storage containers hold donations.
When “The Soupman’s” van and bus pulled into Brockton, people soon gathered for soup scooped out by Kelleher and bagged lunches handed out by volunteer Carolina Desroche. A line quickly formed outside the bus where other volunteers, accompanied by Kelleher’s service dog Koji, filled requests for coats, gloves and boots.
Donna Eliot, who has lived in a shelter in Brockton since an apartment fire in early October, waited in line in shower sandals and socks. She left beaming after being matched with a new pair of tall, fleece-lined boots.
“The Soupman” also gives out toiletries. A recent event at a Bridgewater, Mass., salon yielded three carloads of items, including sanitary products for women, which are often unaffordable for most women experiencing homelessness. Helping people access hygiene and cleanliness has expanded “The Soupman’s” goals.
After reading about a lack of showers for homeless people in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Kelleher raised money to buy a mobile shower unit. The unit has three shower stalls, including a stall suited for people with disabilities, and can run off a garden hose or fire hydrant.
The shower unit now goes to Pawtucket twice a week and is parked once a week in Brockton. Bins of clean clothing are displayed outside the van. Weekly visits to Taunton, Mass., were suspended by the city for cold weather, but there’s a plan to bring the van to Fall River, Mass., in January, where the numbers of those using the van will be tracked.
After hearing from one homeless woman in Pawtucket that the van had allowed her to shower for the first time in eight months, Kelleher said he vowed to expand the shower program.
“I’m gonna have a portable shower in every city in New England one way or another before I die,” he said.
Let’s call him “Lewis.” He’s a regular-looking guy, maybe 50 years old, with an overgrown mane and beard. His dark hair is graying, and he looks lethargic. But he smiles, because he’s just taken his first shower in quite some time. He sits down in a barber chair and a sheet is draped over his shoulders. An electric razor appears, and the locks fall away. Buzz by buzz, Lewis’ face emerges.
“What’s better than a haircut after a shower?” muses Vanessa Parent, a professional stylist and owner of Vanessa Hair Salon in Pawtucket. As she cuts, she asks Lewis about his life. She’s upbeat and funny. You’d think she was in her own place, but instead she’s here, in a lonely parking lot off Barton Street, giving haircuts to people without homes. “I don’t have a lot of money to give,” Vanessa adds. “But doing this, it immediately makes you feel so good.”
None of this would be happening without Peter Kelleher, a Maine native better known as The Soupman. Peter is a veteran contractor and past owner of a doggie daycare; he’s a gregarious man with a boisterous voice. In 2016, Peter learned that his son Travis had died. For some time, Travis had struggled with addiction and homelessness. Now, they’d subsumed him.
Peter responded to Travis’ death with a biblical intensity. He began to cook and distribute soup to homeless people around Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where he now lives. He started collecting clothes and shoes, coats and toiletries. He embraced his nickname and began a movement, “Support the Soupman,” complete with website and T-shirts. He renovated two buses to provide desperately needed services in Bridgewater, Taunton, and now, Pawtucket.
“This has all fallen into my lap, by the grace of God,” proclaims Peter. “I’m still in shock. I didn’t ask for any of this. But I have a good team. That’s what helps this thrive every day.”
Peter has a strong relationship with Ocean State Job Lot, a company known for its philanthropy, but it was a newspaper article that turned Peter’s attention to Pawtucket. With the help of Mayor Donald R. Grebien – plus an army of partners and volunteers – Peter quickly set up a portable shower unit. The station pops up every Tuesday and Thursday.
“It’s a wonderful thing they’re doing here,” says Tom Hodge, who serves as homeless liaison for Pawtucket. He estimates that 200 to 300 people currently live on the city’s streets. “Now we’ve got to find them homes. That’s the big thing.”
The Soupman has a knack for attracting helpers – people like Vanessa, who happened to spot the shower unit from her car and now volunteers regularly at the new site. Peter’s goal is to establish this kind of service in every city in New England, helping people like Lewis get back on their feet, or even just survive the week.
Peter insists that homelessness, and the factors that contribute to it, affect everyone. “I say it a hundred times a day,” he adds. “If it’s not in your house, it’s in your neighbor’s house. And if you don’t believe me, you’re delusional.”
Showers For The Homeless
Philanthropist Peter “The Soupman” Kelleher brings bins of clothing and a shower trailer to Pawtucket on Thursday for the launch of the location which will be available to the homeless on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon at 345 Barton Street.