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Life's Voices: Erik Koepnick Helps Comfort Milwaukee Homeless

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Marti Mikkelson
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As the year’s end approaches, we profile unsung heroes in the community.

Erik Koepnick is coordinator of volunteers, and there are many, at the Guest House. It’s a shelter north of downtown for people who don’t have a place to live.

When I walked into the Guest House, I was struck by the tininess of the place. It’s a narrow, two-story house. Yet the place is bustling during the holidays, with people dropping off clothing, food and toiletries for the men who stay here.

Several dozen are watching a game show in the TV room, while others are doing chores such as laundry and dishes. The Rev. Erik Koepnick is an ordained minister and conducts his daily practice here.

“We serve 86 men in shelter every night. We provide mental health counseling and alcohol and other drug abuse counseling through our clinic and we provide support services to over 300 families and individuals living in permanent housing in Milwaukee County,” Koepnick says.

Koepnick’s job is to coordinate the activities of volunteers. He says, more than 600 come to the Guest House each year, eager to help and to share their knowledge.

“Primarily they’re in our meal program but we also have an employment program where volunteers teach different areas of employment skills. We have volunteers who come to us through service learning from the different colleges and universities in the area. They provide services in our residential office. We have volunteers who provide support in the computer lab so the guys have access to the internet for job searching and also email and social networking,” Koepnick says.

I’m speaking with Koepnick in a tiny conference room on the second floor. It’s packed nearly to the ceiling with blue jeans, sweaters, boots and toys. Volunteers are shuffling about, organizing items and preparing to distribute them to needy families.

Koepnick says while the home is beautifully decorated for the holidays, the mood is not always cheery. He says he sees a lot of hardship and sometimes has to dig deeply, to help men through tough times.

“I think it’s part of who I am and a big part of that is my faith. I feel like everyone is created with a spark of dignity that we have to take care of and help flourish in each person. My personal mission is to get people involved in community change, to promote dignity and to create hope,” Koepnick says.

Koepnick says he draws strength from the people who step forward.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of the state of homelessness in our city and there are more people willing to get involved and direct their resources to help people experiencing homelessness in Milwaukee. At the same time, there’s always going to be people that we need to help. We’re always going to need emergency shelters even if we’re focusing more on permanent housing. I don’t think that need will go away,” Koepnick says.

Koepnick says he’s looking forward to 2015. The Guest House hopes to break ground on an 8,000 square foot expansion. It has succeeded in raising most of the $2.5 million it’ll take.

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