BRIDGEWATER — Peter Kelleher helps the homeless by handing out soup and backpacks full of essentials. He sees it not so much as a cause as it is his reason for being.
“It’s my dream, my purpose,” Kelleher said on a recent day at his home, where several friendly dogs milled about, some his own, most part of his dog-sitting business. “I won the lottery without money.”
Since last Thanksgiving, Kelleher, 56, has been cooking up huge pots of soup every Saturday — sandwiches will replace soup when it gets warmer — and driving them in his pickup truck all over Brockton, Quincy, and beyond to nourish homeless people. Over the winter, he also handed out backpacks stuffed with clothing like socks, hats, and gloves, all donated.
“Whatever the homeless did to become homeless,” he said, “doesn’t mean they deserve to be cold.”
He says he was driven to this weekly act of kindness by the crushing sadness he experienced: His son Travis, 32, was homeless when he died of a drug overdose in Maine in 2016.
“I tried, he tried,” Kelleher said of the back-and-forth struggle between parent and child familiar to anyone who has lived it. “I knew I was going to get that call, and I did. My life will never be the same, but I’m the same as everyone else who’s had to deal with this.”
One person working alone to help those in need isn’t unusual, said John Yazwinski, the chief executive of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a Brockton-based nonprofit that has been helping homeless people for more than 35 years. It doesn’t take many to launch a cause, he said.
“I think of our agency, started by three people meeting in a church basement in 1982,” Yazwinski said, referring to the late Marie Sheehan, former director of Catholic Charities in Boston; the late Jack Conway, founder of Norwell-based Jack Conway Realtors; and Conway’s wife, Patti.
“My Brother’s Keeper in Easton was founded in the garage of Jim and Terry Orcutt in 1988 to give furniture to those in need,” he said. “When people step up and become advocates to address a social need or ill, that’s how great change happens. Peter is one of those who have stepped up.”
Kelleher has worked with Father Bill’s & MainSpring, serving soup and handing out backpacks. Yazwinski, whose agency helps nearly 5,000 people a year and feeds nearly a quarter-million, said he appreciates the effort and the help.
“I think just one person can have impact,” he said. “You certainly see that with Peter.”
Speak with Kelleher briefly and you soon realize there is no filter between brain and mouth. He laughingly admits to being brash, outgoing — and honest to a fault.
“I’ve got a big heart, but I’m pretty crusty around the edges,” he said. “I’m the type you either love to be around or can’t stand, and you know what? Doesn’t matter to me which it is.”
Kelleher dreams big; he’d love to open homeless shelters or buy a portable shower to take to the homeless in warm weather. But he also admits he lacks the organizational skills to make those dreams happen.
Others heard about his work, however, and volunteered to help, including getting nonprofit status for his business name, Support the Soupman (www.supportthesoupman.org).
Michael Goodman, owner of P&L Paintball in Bridgewater, saw news coverage of Kelleher’s efforts and got involved by making donations and helping to set up the nonprofit’s Facebook page.
“Peter feels God put him here on this mission, and I feel God put me in his path,” Goodman said. “He’s a rarity — he’s exactly what he professes to be. There’s no pretense. There’s no phony facade. He is what you see, nothing more, nothing less.”
Goodman has firsthand knowledge of addiction, which puts many people on the streets, having battled alcohol “for many years,” he said. “I lost sisters to alcohol abuse; I had an employee of 19 years die from this nonsense out on the streets.”
He laughed when he said Kelleher bounces from idea to idea, but that disorganization was what he worked in, too.
“Then, others helped me,” he said, adding that by helping Kelleher now, “I realize it’s easier to give than receive. It makes the day so much better.”
There is no shortage of places for the nonprofit’s work. According to a 2017 annual report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are an estimated 17,565 homeless people in Massachusetts; nationwide, there are more than half a million.
Kelleher has grand ideas, including buying that portable shower. He says he’s found models online being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he is convinced that such a shower can be had for much less.
“Peter wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s Mike’s and my job to keep him focused,” Cindy Lyons of Bridgewater, who serves on Support the Soupman’s board with Goodman and several others, said with a laugh. “We love him to pieces, and sometimes have to rein him in.”
But Kelleher’s enthusiasm can pay off. Lyons said one of the board’s goals was to make the shower a reality by summer 2019, but Kelleher has banged on so many doors that he could have about $50,000 toward a four-bay portable shower by this summer.
“I will have that shower,” Kelleher said. “No question.”
Lyons said the nonprofit’s main areas of focus now are building up the backpack reserve for cold weather later this year, and creating and dispensing bagged lunches for the homeless this spring and summer, then ramping up the soup program again in the fall. She said Support the Soupman is also working to help young people understand homelessness and to get them involved in helping the cause.
“We have students, like a fifth-grade class in Easton, passing out bags and writing inspirational messages on them, allowing the younger generation to understand the homeless situation and knowing they can make a difference,” Lyons said. “And it lets the homeless people know others do care for them; it means a lot for them to be recognized.”
For Kelleher, who says he’s always tried to help homeless people when he can, the cause became real last year after he gave gloves and a hat to an elderly woman, then realized “she could’ve been my mother, your mother, anyone’s mother.” That realization inspired him to do more, he said.
News about his efforts soon got around, and volunteers started helping. Now Kelleher hopes to hook up with a major Boston sports team for support. Ideally, he said, it would include retired Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
“I’d love to find Big Papi a job doing soup with me on some Saturday,” Kelleher said, laughing.
He was not entirely joking.
As he tended to the dogs in his care in his modest Bridgewater home, Kelleher smiled when he was asked where he wants Support the Soupman to go.
“To the moon. I want to get that portable shower, open my own soup kitchens, shelters, get grants to pay for it or whoever else wants to pay for it,” he said. “I want to do a lot.”