Case File No.7: Michelle Langan
File under: #homelessness #reform #charity #politics #laws #justice
You know when there are people in your orbit doing wonderful things, and you’re aware of what they do, but don’t know the detail? Michelle Langan is one such person for me. It won’t have escaped your notice that homelessness is reaching epidemic levels in the UK, but rather than just pitying those dealt a shitty hand, Michelle, 44, has been doing something about it for some time now. I’ve known her since working on teen magazines together over a decade ago. But, although she moved back home to Liverpool in 2006 to get into TV scriptwriting, she’s stayed in my peripheral vision via social media, largely due to the things she’s got involved with on the side. First launching The Paper Cup Project, (a group supporting people living on the streets of Liverpool); she then dipped into politics beating off over a thousand applicants to get a place on the Jo Cox Women in Leadership scheme. Now she has her sights on a local council seat and who knows where that will lead. When I finally got to pin her down to find out more, she described herself as ‘gobby’ and ‘annoying’ but, frankly, these are qualities you’re going to need if you’re planning on influencing homelessness legislation – which she has done. I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of the name Michelle Langan on ballot papers in years to come.
Back in the good old days you were at J17 [Just Seventeen], I was Bliss; we interviewed boys in bands and wrote about holiday romances. Now, thanks to a move back up North, you’re looking at a career in politics. What happened in between?
When all the magazines I was writing for started closing, I left London and moved back to Liverpool. I fancied a change so I went to university, did a masters for four years in screenwriting for TV and got some work story-lining at Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. Then I got really sick with a septic abscess, and my hospital treatment was on and off for three years making it hard to commit to work.
So what did you do?
I freelanced again and did writing workshops once a week at a local homeless charity. At the end of it we put on an exhibition. Some of the contributors came, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool came, and, after this, I couldn’t just walk away — these people had told me their stories and let me into their lives. So, I joined a local outreach group handing out food on the streets, then just over a year ago I set up my own group.
This being The Paper Cup Project; why did you branch out?
I think I was too political for the other group! I didn’t want to just offer food, I wanted to do more. As kind as it is, it doesn’t resolve the situation in the long term. I wanted to find solutions. I wanted to get politicians out with us and explore ways of getting people off the streets, and to find out how to influence the laws that are putting people out of their homes. Steve Rotheram, the Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region came out with us after I challenged him on Twitter to see the situation for himself. I’m the first to admit, I have a loud voice on social media and my way of communicating isn’t for everybody. I’m gobby and I can be annoying but I’m also good at engaging people. Julie Fadden, the CEO for a local housing association saw my tweets and asked whether she could come out with us one night. That night her team took two rough sleepers off the street and sorted them out with flats. Her way of approaching things is revolutionary, I’d love for more organisations to follow her lead.
How often do you go out?
Every Monday night, but it creeps into your life on other days when you’re sorting out the issues that you come across, as well as organising donations and rotas. It started as just me and another girl; now we have a full team but I cap it at eight per night so we aren’t too intimidating.
How do you stay afloat?
We do fundraising but also have good partnerships. Bean, a coffee shop in Liverpool supplies us with tea and coffee and Fareshare in Merseyside gives us food that might otherwise go to waste. Previously, all the people in the team were self-funding meals, now costs are minimal.
There must be a lot of planning involved.
In the beginning we were flexible but there’d be nights when 15 people turned up — lovely, but too many. Now we schedule a month in advance.
Do you build relationships with people you help?
We see a lot of the same people each week and build up rapports with them. People confide in us, you get close. But we’ve had people die this year. It’s always horrible October to January so we have to be prepared some won’t make it. In the winter we see things like trench foot and frostbite. We try to encourage people to go to hospital but often they’re too scared for whatever reason.
Losing people you’ve got to know must be pretty tough.
Yeah, I went to one guy’s funeral. His family got in touch with me via the Facebook page because they’d seen a piece I’d written about him. That was really hard because he was so quiet, kept himself to himself. But he was one of my favourites as I had a little bond with him. He was only a year older than me but looked much older. For someone of 45 to die on the street is just awful. His family were lovely, they had tried to reach out to him but he wasn’t ready, for whatever reasons. It gave them comfort to know that he had people looking out for him, and who also cared about him. He mattered.
How do you deal with it emotionally?
No human being can distance themselves emotionally. There’s a new girl on the team who messaged me over the weekend after a night out in town. She’d bumped into a homeless guy she has a rapport with. She was devastated. She said, ‘he looks terrible, he’s lost a lot of weight and I don’t know what to do.’ There are people you connect with and he touched her heart in a way you can’t explain.
What misconceptions about homelessness make you most angry?
When people say there’s no need for anyone to be homeless because there’s a bed for everybody; that is absolutely not true. We have rung up services and they’ve turned people away — lots of times. People say it’s not a political issue, but of course it’s political because rules on how rough sleepers can get help is government stipulation passed on to local authorities.
In what way?
We have a guy in Liverpool who’s from London so he isn’t eligible for help. You can only access help if you can prove you have been in that particular city for six months or more – which in itself is difficult. Even the charities’ hands are tied, they can only get people work like selling the Big Issue to get them a national insurance number.
So what do you attribute the rising number of rough sleepers to? Cuts? Substance abuse? Rising unemployment?
Sanctions. They say every single person is two pay packets away from being homeless. If your source of income is taken away, unless you have a support network, everything collapses. If you fall behind on your rent from a private landlord you’re going to get evicted. One girl I did the writing workshop with had a friend who died suddenly so, understandably, she got depressed and had time off work with depression. Then she got sacked, lost her income and was evicted from her house when she couldn’t pay rent. Young girl, early thirties, working in an office: she had everything and within a couple of months found herself homeless.
What needs to happen for things to improve?
The whole system needs an overhaul. The government has just stopped issuing housing benefit for those up to the age of 21. If you’re taking away this safety net for people coming out of care, there will be an increase in younger people on the streets — especially if they can’t get a place or haven’t got a job. Young men have always been a low priority, so they make up the highest percentage. With all the cuts to charities there’s less mental health and addiction support but they are so, so important. We need more support networks. People on the streets are getting addicted within three weeks because they turn to drink and drugs to block out the whole reality. People might presume that homeless people are on the streets because of bad lifestyle choices, like addictions, but in most cases, addictions develop on the streets. It’s a coping mechanism. People turn to drink or sometimes drugs to block it all out. Women are vulnerable and scared. I would be! People often ask if they are doing the right thing by giving money. I always say, do what you feel is right. Speak to the person, ask what they need, and try not to judge. The people we meet are someone’s son, daughter, mum, dad, brother, sister. Help if you can, in whatever way you can, even if that’s buying someone a cup of tea and stopping to chat for five minutes.
So is your anger at what you’ve been seeing what has got you into politics?
I didn’t understand politics before I did this. I always thought politics didn’t affect me, which was a bit blinkered. It was only when I started meeting people who said they couldn’t get help, that I started reading up on regulations. I couldn’t believe all the barriers. You have to prove you aren’t intentionally homeless so, if a woman leaves a man and hasn’t a house, she isn’t guaranteed help because she ‘made herself’ homeless.
And that’s why women stay in relationships they shouldn’t be in.
Exactly. Domestic violence, abuse. The law has to change because every case is different.
How did you get involved with the Jo Cox Leadership scheme?
First I joined the Labour party because of Jeremy Corbyn, I really liked his ideas. So I’d go to meetings and lobbied MPs to support The Homelessness Reduction Bill [legislation that gets councils to start assessing someone at risk of being made homeless 56 days before losing their home] at the party conference. When I was there I got talking to Jeremy’s son — no idea who he was — but he said, ‘email me, tell me more and we will see if we can help’ and within a week Labour came out saying they would be supporting the Homelessness Reduction Bill. It got passed in March.
It was pure fluke. I struck up a conversation with someone who had a friendly face, and it worked out well!
No way, you put yourself in a situation of influence and it paid off.
Then a few people suggested I apply to the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Course, but I didn’t expect anything. In fact, I thought I missed out because the acceptance email went into my junk! It’s been brilliant, there were fifty-odd places and over a thousand applied. Two women off our course became MPs at the last election: Preet Gill, the ever first Sikh female MP and Rosie Duffield who won a seat occupied by Conservatives for over a hundred years. They are fantastic, as are all of the other women I have met on the course. Positive disrupters!
What did the course involve?
Part of the homework was to shadow an MP so I shadowed Andy Burnham, now the Metro Mayor of Greater Manchester. He’d been a driving force getting justice for the families of Hillsborough so, coming from Liverpool, I thought it would be interesting to see how he operated. Homelessness is a huge problem in Manchester, but he’s really open to suggestions on tackling it.
What did you learn from him?
It made me realise how much you need to know about the community: transport, housing, education, health. I wasn’t shocked because I knew he had a big remit but I was impressed how he could slip in and out of conversations so easily about so many topics. There’s a lot to learn and people always want to trip you up.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
I’m on the selection panel for the local council and, if I get selected, I’ll be standing for a seat in the Liverpool elections next May. But I’ll still be concentrating on homelessness. I want to set up a Parliamentary group looking at how we can change current rules that stop people getting help, and that is something I am working on at the moment.
Other than getting onto the Jo Cox scheme, what else have you recently achieved that you’re proud of?
I won Merseyside Woman of The Year for social impact due to the work I’ve done with homelessness and raising awareness across the city. You get nominated but you don’t know you’ve won until the day so I was really shocked. And then, just recently, after a big fundraising push The Paper Cup Project qualified for charity status, so that’s going to open a lot more doors for us too.
What advice would you give someone considering a move into politics?
Start with finding an area you feel passionate about. Set up your own group doing grassroots campaigning, peaceful demos, raising awareness and join a party you have an affinity with.
You need a thick skin in politics; are you cut out for it?
Yes! There are always people who don’t like what I’ve got to say, but when you need to tell the truth and get a message across, you have to put yourself out there. I have got quite a thick skin, and a big voice, which I’m not afraid to use! Harriet Harman spoke to us and told us to ‘keep banging on,’ so I will.
For more info about The Paper Cup Project, to volunteer or offer provisions, visit the Facebook page Paper Cup Project, Liverpool. To make a donation, click here. Follow Michelle on Twitter at @Liverpoolshell .
The She Can & She Does Case Files are stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Every month a new one will be introduced to the She Can & She Does Facebook page. If you, or someone you know, would like to feature please contact me via the page, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.