Steve Harvey was once forced to steal fuel from gas stations to make ends meet
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brightcove.createExperiences(); From homeless to $100 million! Steve Harvey opens up exclusively to PEOPLE about overcoming homelessness to build an entertainment empire. Subscribe now for an inside look at how he finally found happiness with the love of his life!

Before wrangling talented kids on Little Big Shots, Steve Harvey was just trying to make ends meet – by any means possible.

Now a millionaire and television regular, Harvey tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story that he was homeless for three years and once resorted to theft in order to survive.

“It was crushing,” says the star, 59. “I realized, ‘You’re on your own. You have nothing or no one.’ All I knew was that I could make people laugh.”

Harvey was forced to steal fuel from gas stations to get to comedy gigs, which would occasionally put him up in a hotel for a night. Otherwise, he was left sleeping in his Ford Tempo, using an Igloo cooler as a makeshift refrigerator, showing in rest stop bathrooms and surviving largely on bologna sandwiches.

But how did Harvey, then a father of two, get to that point?

RELATED VIDEO: Steve Harvey Opens Up About His Journey from Rags to Riches

After winning $50 at his first-ever try at stand up comedy in 1985, Harvey quit his insurance salesman job – a decision that did not go over well with his wife at the time, Marcia.

“I’m married, I have twins [Brandi and Karli, now 33]. I’m supposed to provide for them, but I had to take this chance,” he says. In his first year Harvey made just $3,000 as a comedian. He and his wife separated (eventually finalizing their divorce in 1994). His relationship with his daughters fell apart.

For much more on Steve Harvey’s life, pick up the upcoming issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

With 75 percent of his sporadic paychecks going directly to Marcia and the twins, Harvey was forced to live on as little as $50 a week. It’s a period Harvey says was an “ugly” time.

Once, while attempting to wash up in the sink of a hotel restroom, he was forced to hide in a stall for hours until other guests left.

“I sat down and started crying, but a voice said, ‘If you keep going, I’m going to take you places you’ve never been.’ It was like God said, ‘Don’t quit, you’re almost there,’ ” Harvey said. Not long after, he finally got his big break in the from of a televised gig at the Apollo.

These days the comedian, author and talk show host – who is now married to wife Marjorie Harvey (between them, the pair have seven children and three grandchildren, with another on the way) – is at the helm of an empire estimated to be worth $100 million, a fortune amassed from lucrative stand-up appearances, bestselling books and movie adaptations, and multiple radio and TV gigs, including hosting Family Feud, the hit daytime talk show The Steve Harvey Show and the NBC variety show Little Big Shots.

Harvey and his wife Marjorie dream of slowing down in the South of France – though he has never been good at turning down work. “I’ve prided myself on having the title of Hardest Working Man in Show Business, but I’ve grown a little tired of the title,” he says. “Now I want to become the Smartest Working Man in Show Business.”