Kevin Carroll, 50, left the Army in 1979 and became "a slave to heroin."
His addiction, he said, took him to low places. He's fished for meals from trash cans, slept on the streets, even curled up inside Dumpsters.
But yesterday, Carroll found himself shaking hands with rock star Jon Bon Jovi, one of the private and public donors who raised $3.3 million to help Project H.O.M.E. start a new program to help more homeless veterans like Carroll.
Carroll said he's been clean for more than a year, helped by a recovery program in North Philadelphia that Project H.O.M.E. runs for homeless, addicted men.
The program - the St. Elizabeth's Recovery Residence - will use the money to renovate its aging building, set aside 12 units of housing for homeless veterans, and provide on-site services for them.
After listening to Carroll tell his story to a full audience of donors and supporters at Project H.O.M.E.'s Honickman Learning Center, Bon Jovi said the decision to contribute money to the effort was easy.
"I'm the product of two vets," Bon Jovi said. "Both my mother and father were Marines."
Bon Jovi, who is one of the owners of the Philadelphia Soul arena football team, said the investment in St. Elizabeth's is "another amazing step in ending the cycle of homelessness."
The Philadelphia Soul Charitable Foundation and Bon Jovi contributed a combined $250,000 to the St. Elizabeth's project. Most of the remaining money for the project came from a combination of federal, state and city sources, said Sister Mary Scullion, cofounder of Project H.O.M.E., a nonprofit agency that provides housing and services for homeless people.
Veterans make up a disproportionate share of the nation's homeless population, studies have shown.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Peter Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said about one in five homeless people in the United States are veterans.
Dougherty said the ranks of homeless veterans, however, are easing as federal and local agencies provide more services for them.
Dougherty cited a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend $75 million on permanent housing for homeless veterans. Of that, Philadelphia has a commitment to get funding for 140 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans, he said.
Dougherty said there were about 154,000 homeless veterans across the country - down from about 250,000 eight years ago.
In Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs, he said, outreach teams estimated that there were about 550 homeless veterans.
He said veterans returning from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan should fare better than their peers who came back from Vietnam a generation earlier. He said there are more supports for them and a better understanding of their needs.
Dougherty estimated that nationally, about 2,000 veterans on the streets or in shelters have returned from the current conflicts.
Dougherty said returning soldiers are prone to homelessness because they are coming from stressful assignments and can feel alienated. He said the military makes veterans better equipped than others to live in harsh environments like the streets.
"They fall harder than the rest of us," he said.