Clean Up Crew

A mobile shower in Pawtucket is Peter Kelleher’s latest effort to help New England’s homeless

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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.”