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.