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.
“They really seem to come out of this brighter,” said Kim Meszar of Bridgewater, who works part time helping run the shower. “It’s just wonderful to be able to help.”
The rolling shower is the brainchild of Peter Kelleher, whose relentless drive to help the homeless was sparked by tragedy: the 59-year-old Bridgewater man lost his son, Travis, who died at 32 of an opioid overdose in 2016 while living on the streets of Bangor.
At the time, Kelleher was running a dog-sitting service from his house, and recalled the moment he decided to channel his grief over his son’s death into something more positive.
“I was sitting in my backyard, doing my doggie day care, crying,” Kelleher said. “I have to do something. I have to do something to honor my son who was out in the streets.”
He started with a relatively straightforward plan: serving hot meals to the homeless, first in nearby Brockton. His signature hamburger soup earned him the nickname “The Soupman.” Over time he attracted volunteers and donors, and expanded his operation to include backpacks with supplies such as gloves, protein bars, and toiletries. He also started a nonprofit, Support the Soupman, with the goal of expanding services to other New England communities.
“I think sometimes people give you money just to get away from you,” said Kelleher. “Because I’m persistent . . . and I think that has a lot to do with where we are.”
That persistence was on display in Brockton, when Kelleher took a phone call from a business owner who had just decided to donate to his charity.
“God love you! I love you!” Kelleher yelled into his cellphone, loud enough to be heard over the thrum of the generator powering the trailer.
Emotional displays are part of Kelleher’s personality. When he laughs, it’s loud and hard. When he talks about his son Travis, which is often, his voice tends to crack.
The idea for the mobile shower came one day when Kelleher and another volunteer were helping homeless people. “ ‘Where are they taking a shower?’ ” Kelleher recalled asking his colleague. “He didn’t have an answer. I didn’t have an answer.”
The mobile shower was custom-made for $50,000 by Comforts of Home, an Illinois-based maker of “specialty trailer solutions.” Inside, the white glossy plastic showers look very much like smaller versions of bathrooms found in well-kept budget hotels. Volunteers hose them down after every use, the diluted bleach giving the trailer that vague indoor-pool smell. The showers require a hookup to city water and sewage, which Brockton allows via a fire hydrant and street drain.
The sides of the trailer are speckled with the logos of sponsors, while the back is adorned with a giant airbrushed mural of Travis embracing his father, while Kelleher’s rock-steady support dog Koji looks on.
Every Monday morning, Kelleher hooks up the trailer to his pickup and — with Koji beside him — drives to Brockton; he goes to Taunton and Pawtucket, R.I., every week, as well.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald L. Grebien praised Kelleher’s nonprofit as “the integral piece of a team effort to aid the underprivileged homeless community in our city,” adding he wants to find a permanent location for the trailer. “The Soupman’s energy and desire to help those in need is second to none,” Grebien said in a statement.
In Brockton, Kelleher has found his niche acting as an alternative for the homeless who would prefer not to use the showers at the downtown shelter Mainspring House, which served an average of 134 people a night in the 2019 fiscal year.
“For somebody that may be struggling with PTSD, somebody that may be struggling with severe mental health issues, the shelter can be a very hard environment,” said John Yazwinski, whose organization runs Mainspring and a second shelter in Quincy.
Kelleher has been trying to bring his showers to Boston, which has a significantly larger homeless population, but has so far been unable to persuade City Hall to back him. He spent weeks trying to get someone in the Walsh administration to talk to him, he said. He did finally recently meet with Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of Health and Human Services, who Kelleher said seemed open and expressed an interest in sending someone out to see the trailer in action.
But Kelleher overall seemed discouraged by the reception in Boston, recalling one city official who he said scolded him for trying to give aid that didn’t address the root causes of homelessness, calling his mobile shower “a Band-Aid.”
“What do you do if someone’s bleeding? You put a Band-Aid on them,” Kelleher said. “It is what it is. I’m not going to keep pushing. I’ve got other cities that want me.”
A spokeswoman for the Walsh administration declined to say if the city would permit Kelleher to operate his mobile shower, saying only that Boston runs facilities with “wraparound services” that address more aspects of homelessness than just hygiene.
“All of our services are designed to serve the whole individual, meeting their basic needs and providing them with comfort and support services so they can live a dignified and fulfilling life,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
Other agencies that help the homeless also noted that showers alone are not enough.
“I recognize that there are certain people who just aren’t coming in, “ said Karen LaFrazia, chief executive of St. Francis House shelter in downtown Boston. “So the value of [Kelleher’s showers] would be if it wasn’t just bringing a shower to somebody, but it acted in a way to engage people to come inside.”
But Kelly Turley of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless questioned why Boston wouldn’t embrace Kelleher’s offer, given how much need there is to serve the homeless.
“There isn’t enough access to resources and shelters to meet basic hygiene needs,” Turley said, “So there is, I would say, an unmet need, and also a need for people who are experiencing homelessness to have autonomy to be able to choose where and when [they] access resources and services.”
For the homeless themselves, such as 60-year-old Richard Malone, a hot shower can be a small respite from the harsh life on the street. Malone is sitting on a log in the parking lot in Brockton, a few yards from Kelleher’s mobile trailer, tugging on a new pair of Champion sneakers.
Kelleher comes over to check on Malone occasionally, gently goading him to use the showers. Eventually, he does, emerging with a satisfied sigh, his damp gray hair drying in the breeze, his face a little brighter than before.
“I’ll stay in there all winter,” Malone says to Kelleher, and they both laugh. “Hook up the truck and take me where you want to go.”