Jeff Cooper acknowledges that his life has had more downs than ups since he ran away from home at age 14, the police took him back and his mother told them to keep him.

Living largely on his own and frequently homeless since then, Cooper said, “I slept under many, many bridges and in apartment hallways.”

The 52-year-old native of Wauwatosa believes there is a reason he landed in La Crosse four years ago seeking help to turn his life around — after bouts with alcoholism and drug addiction; scrapes with the law, including serving 15 months in the Richland County Jail for a 1999 theft of $3,400 from an employer to buy drugs; alcohol-fueled fights with his brother and a son-in-law; on-and-off periods of homelessness since his wife left him in 2008; sporadic employment; and seven suicide attempts.

“I honestly believe almost all suicide attempts were because of the drugs. I’ve got to believe God has got something in store for me, or I wouldn’t have survived,” Cooper said during an interview in his simple apartment on Copeland Avenue.

“The positive thing is I got to meet a lot of people, and I wouldn’t change that,” he said. “Even though people feel like I’ve had a hard time, there is a reason I’m here.

“Everywhere I went in La Crosse, people were wanting to help,” he said of agencies such as The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, the Coulee Council on Addictions, the La Crosse County Health Department, the Oxford House transitional housing for recovering addicts, Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare’s Scarseth House substance abuse group home, and Couleecap, which arranged the North Side apartment where he has lived for a year.

“I’ve been all over the country, and I’ve never seen people who have opened their hearts so much. It gives hope to the homeless,” said Cooper, who credits all those helping hands with getting him back on track, with 1½ years of sobriety.

Cooper will share his story of transition from despair to hope as one of the main speakers during an Empty Bowls La Crosse event from 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 20 in the dining room of the La Crosse Diocesan Center at 3710 East Ave. S.

The Homeless Coalition of La Crosse County is sponsoring the soup and bread meal in conjunction with National Homeless and Hunger Awareness Week.

Admission is free with donations of household cleaning and paper products. The first 200 people to arrive will receive free pottery bowls donated by Karen Bressi at Generous Earth Pottery.

Mayor Tim Kabat and Steve Michaels, principal of Hamilton Early Learning Center in La Crosse, also will speak.

Becky Koske, who is Cooper’s case manager in Couleecap Inc.’s Housing First program, said he is one of 15 clients in Housing First. In the program, Couleecap rents housing and subleases units to people like Cooper in the quest for self-sufficiency, she said.

“We’re always working toward the goal of self-sufficiency, and he’s done very well, getting connected with the resources he needs. The next step is getting him hooked up with a job,” she said.

“He’s a very people person,” Koske said. “He is motivated to get out in the community and help others.”

Cooper said he eventually would like to become a peer counselor, adding, “I’ve got a heart for people, and if I can save one person, it’ll be worth it.”

Cooper said he subsists on FoodShare and odd jobs, including cleaning halls and windows in his apartment building. “That doesn’t amount to much,” he said, “but when you don’t have anything, it’s something.”

He said he converted to Christianity in 1984, after J.W. Ewing befriended him and taught him to be a mechanic at his Cornerstone car and truck repair business in Richland Center.

Ewing also took him to church, where Cooper said he ran into “two gentlemen who knew me well — the sheriff and my probation officer. Both gave me a hug, and it melted me.”

Cooper describes his conversion as “extremely dramatic. … I literally felt God hug me. After that, there were no drugs of alcohol — the Lord just took it away.”

He remained clean and sober for 11 years, until he injured his back, became addicted to painkillers after surgery and stole money for drugs.

Ewing said he considers Cooper a good friend and has seen him go through several up-and-down cycles.

“He seems different this time,” Ewing said in a phone interview. “He seems better now than he’s been in years.

“I think he hit bottom, and maybe he understands — maybe for the first time — his shortcomings. We all have them. I think he’s got a purpose now.”

Cooper’s aspirations to become a peer counselor are fitting, Ewing said. "Jeff, I think, will make a good one because he’s heard it all, and he’s said it all.”