10/03/2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
These days, Steve Harvey
has plenty to be grateful for: a hit syndicated daytime talk show, Steve Harvey
, multiple best sellers, a job as host of the syndicated game show Family Feud
– and two luxe homes in Chicago and Atlanta where he can unwind with his wife, Marjorie, and the seven children they share between them.
But when he was first starting out as a comedian in the late 80s, Harvey, 56, knew what it was to struggle.
Living on a shoestring budget, after splitting from his first wife, Marcia, and sending the majority of his paychecks home to his two children, "one or two gigs fell through, and suddenly I was homeless," the comedian tells PEOPLE in its newest issue, on news stands Friday.
Though he'd stay in hotels when he landed a gig that would put him up, once he was done, "I had nowhere to go," he says, and began living out of his 1976 Ford Tempo, using an Igloo cooler in the backseat as a makeshift refrigerator, and washing up in hotel bathrooms, gas stations or swimming pool showers.
His rough patch lasted for an excruciating three years before he was called to appear on Showtime at the Apollo
, which proved to be his big break.
"It was so disheartening," Harvey recalls. "A week is really the maximum you can do. This was three years! It was rock bottom. But even in my darkest days I had faith it would turn around."
For much more on Harvey's life story, and how he finally found happiness, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday