Peter Kelleher returned to Bangor on Wednesday to make something of the grief he’s felt ever since his son died of a drug overdose here two-and-a-half years ago.
All morning, Kelleher, a Millinocket native who now lives in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, drove around downtown Bangor in a red school bus, stopping at various places to donate backpacks filled with toiletries and other supplies to the poor and homeless.
Despite the snow that was falling, he left about 75 backpacks at the Hope House and 50 at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. He dropped some more off at the Union Street Brick Church before going to purchase winter boots to distribute.
Each pack contained toothpaste, chapstick and other essentials. Many also contained menstrual products, which are costly — often unaffordable for those with limited means. Kelleher also planned to hand out backpacks to any other homeless people he spotted while driving through Bangor.
“We’re trying to help the people who are out on the streets, who don’t have gloves, to keep their fingers from freezing,” Kelleher said. “We take so much for granted, but this is my passion.”
Kelleher, 59, has not lived in Maine for years. But he came back this week as part of a larger effort that started with the death of his son Sept. 2, 2016. Travis Kelleher died of an opioid overdose in Bangor at the age of 33.
Kelleher, who said that he was not a good father but still adored his son, was stricken by grief for several months. Eventually, he decided he would make up for it by donating hot soup and other necessities to the homeless in Massachusetts and farther away.
Now, he has closed a dog day care business that he ran and started an organization, Support the Soupman, that borrows the nickname he earned through his outreach efforts. At some point, a school bus dealer donated the red bus that he’s driving across Maine this week, on the front of which he’s written “Travis’ Bus.” Besides Bangor, he’s also stopped in Biddeford, Portland and Pittsfield. He also plans to visit Augusta, Newport, Lincoln and Millinocket. In total, he plans to donate more than 1,500 packs.
But Kelleher is also making a special effort to help the Queen City, where his son lived and died. He now says that he is raising money to donate a portable shower to a nonprofit organization that works with the homeless in Bangor. The shower will cost about $50,000, he said.
He said that he is still working to identify a group to accept the donation, for which he started an online fundraiser that has so far brought in close to $10,000. His group has also purchased a portable shower for the city of Brockton, Massachusetts, that Kelleher said will be delivered in the coming weeks.
In recent years, groups focused on homelessness in Maine have made progress toward their goal of ending chronic homelessness.
As of last July, just seven people in Bangor had been homeless for more than six months, according to the most recent count from the Maine State Housing Authority. But those data do not reflect people who have been homeless for shorter stretches of time.
Kelleher acknowledges that his donations will only go so far before the homeless need new supplies. But he said it’s still important to do what he can.
“It’s all about helping people,” he said.
During one of his last stops in Bangor on Wednesday morning, Kelleher left some backpacks at the Union Street Brick Church, which accepts clothing donations at its Storehouse.
There’s great demand for those donations, said Laura Cole, the Storehouse’s general manager.
“They will be gone in two days,” Cole said.