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Life's Voices: Joe Volk Helps Scores of Homeless

Marti Mikkelson

We begin our annual holiday series Life’s Voices, stories of people striving to make Milwaukee a better place to live.

Our first profile is of Joe Volk. He’s devoted most of his life to helping people without a home.

About ten people are standing in line at the front desk of Community Advocates in downtown Milwaukee. Another dozen are sitting in the waiting area.

During the course of a year, the agency serves about 75,000 families, according to Volk. His office is on the third floor.

“We help people at this site who are having problems maintaining their housing. They may be being evicted for non-payment of rent. They may not have heat or light because they’ve gotten behind on those bills and we have programs to help make sure that they have a warm, safe, dry place to stay,” Volk says.

Volk has been executive director since 2005, but he’s been with the agency for 30 years. He started as a volunteer.

“I was in college at UWM. I fancied myself going to law school someday so I was a volunteer at the university legal clinic and saw a flier for this new agency that needed volunteers. You just started to answer phones and people started to tell you they didn’t have a place to live or they didn’t have food or heat and my role was to solve those things for them. It was a challenge that was really difficult, but the idea that when I started at 9:00 in the morning and it was cold out and someone didn’t have heat and by 4:00 in the afternoon they had heat, that made the day worthwhile,” Volk says.

Volk says the grittiest part of his job is administering to people who live on the streets. He periodically accompanies nurses to the underside of freeways, to deliver food, water and medicine to people sleeping there.

“You would think I would feel all this compassion, which of course I do, what I’m more overwhelmed with is how people have the will to figure out how to survive. That’s what I always come away with. My goodness, for all of my problems and our problems and the problems most middle class people have, these are folks who are challenged every day to figure out how they’re going to make it and for the most part they do, and that’s something to admire to some extent,” Volk says.

Volk is currently involved in a countywide mission to end homelessness within ten years – the campaign is at the midway point. He says it’s made tremendous strides. For example, Community Advocates opened the new Autumn West building on the north side, to help people transition from the streets to apartments. But Volk says plenty of work remains.

“There are always people who are going to need some assistance, I personally find it very fulfilling, being able to leave work every night knowing that I have helped somebody else and that that person, that family, that child, those children are in a better place because of some of the work I’ve done and my colleagues here have done,” Volk says.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.