Thomas, 57, who goes by "Jamaica," addressed a crowd of Joseph's House contributors and local politicians, and shared the stage with rock legend and philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi, whose Soul Foundation contributed start-up money for the shelter.
It was the second time in four months Bon Jovi had visited the shelter on Atlantic Avenue off I-676. In November he stopped by to mark the halfway point in the construction.
"Last November . . . we recognized the building would be more than just bricks and mortar, but it would provide hope and promise to many who sought shelter within its walls," Bon Jovi said. "We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we've met the need, but it's one step toward the solution."
Bon Jovi's Soul Foundation gave $200,000 for acquisition of the 17,000-square-foot building. The shelter cost $1.1 million, with additional funding provided by the St. Joseph's Fund, a Camden-based organization created to raise money for the six ministries served by St. Joseph's Pro-Cathedral. The county also contributed $140,000.
The shelter can house up to 85 adults and includes a commercial kitchen, recreation room, and private rooms for social services, including a health clinic and mental-health and substance-abuse services.
It replaces and expands Joseph House's offerings at 20 Church St. in East Camden, where a now-closed shelter served people during the winter.
According to the advocacy council, more than 19,300 homeless adults sought assistance from Camden County agencies, most located in Camden, from Oct. 1 to March 21. On Jan. 29, surveyors counted 520 homeless men and women, though double that have been estimated to call the streets home.
The shelter was not slated to open until now, but executive director John Klein decided to open in January and continue providing shelter during a particularly brutal winter. Joseph's House has served 480 people, 35 percent of whom have stayed there every night.
"That's 480 people who would otherwise be in that abandoned building across the street or a tent," Klein said. "There are people who come to us who need housing. They come here, they get a cot, a shower, a meal, and they meet people who offer services they need."
The house works with Our Lady of Lourdes, Project HOPE, Center for Family Services, Living Proof Recovery, Twin Oaks, South Jersey Legal Services, Veterans Multi-Service Center, and the Camden County Board of Social Services.
Doors open at 9:15 p.m., and people are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Dinner and breakfast are provided, and all overnight guests must leave by 9 a.m.
Klein said he hopes eventually to offer programming during the day and turn a second wing of the building, not yet completed, into permanent housing.
Mayor Dana Redd said the city would contribute $120,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money to the house.
She quoted Hubert Humphrey: "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped."
"Unfortunately," Redd said. "Those who are homeless get shoved into shadows of life, but it doesn't mean they should be left behind."
After remarks and a ribbon-cutting, Bon Jovi exchanged hugs and handshakes with the gathered crowd.
Thomas sipped on a cup of coffee in the corner and became emotional discussing his plans. He said the shelter had provided a place for him to recover - he is going to rehab to be fitted for his second prosthetic leg. He said his two daughters keep him strong. "That's how I keep up," he said. "They're my inner strength."