Department for Work and Pensions staff member Sarah Morton this year joined the small group of individuals who’ve won a Civil Service Award twice. The Personal Independence Payments case manager at DWP’s Belle Vale service centre in Liverpool picked up the Citizenship Award in recognition of her tireless volunteering work with some of the most vulnerable people in the city.
Morton helps with a range of grassroots organisations that support homeless people in Liverpool. She also volunteers with food banks, works to end period poverty and gives her time to aid victims of domestic violence. She won the Volunteering Award in 2017 for her work.
As well as mobilising colleagues at Belle Vale to support the HOPE Project, the principal organisation she works with to help rough sleepers, Morton is also passionate about ensuring DWP staff have a better understanding of service users as individuals.
“When you’re working at a processing site and you’re not actually seeing people like you do in a jobcentre, it helps people realise that there’s a vulnerable person behind every case that we deal with,” she says. “It helps to reinforce that we need to do our very best to make sure that everybody gets the level of service that they deserve and the most help that we can give them.”
Morton tells CSW she shares the stories of people she meets doing outreach work with colleagues to give them a better understanding of the issues they face. The result is that her “unbelievably generous” Belle Vale colleagues now provide the majority of the support that the HOPE Project receives.
“Being able to tell people’s stories is about addressing the myths about homelessness,” she says. “Some people have very strange ideas about deserving and undeserving people. Some people have the idea that if you end up homeless you’ve done something to deserve that. But that’s not the case: everybody deserves to have a home.
“When we’re dealing with people with disabilities or in very bad situations, something like that can happen to them if they don’t get the help that they need.”
Morton says the HOPE Project has brought her into contact with elderly women who have been victims of domestic violence and ended up on the street because they were thrown out by their partners. But the biggest demographic sleeping rough is single men.
The HOPE Project offers food, clean clothing, sleeping bags and essential items like sanitising wipes to people living on the streets in Liverpool. Morton became involved after the death of her father, who was a keen walker, when she was looking for an organisation that could make use of his outdoor clothing.
She quickly took over running the HOPE Project’s Friday night outreach team. Her mother and her mother’s friends began cooking the hot soup and scouse distributed by teams on Fridays.
Morton says she was nominated for her latest award in recognition of her work in the early days of the pandemic, before the government’s Everyone In temporary accommodation drive for rough sleepers was up and running.
Because the HOPE Project is not a registered charity, it does not accept cash donations. An Amazon Wish List fixed the issue of colleagues not being able to physically donate things like insulated sleeping mats, gloves and rain ponchos to her at the office when everyone was working remotely.
“We were able to take them out and distribute them safely,” Morton says. “Obviously at a distance, with a risk assessment.”
Despite being able to continue providing essentials to people living on the streets during the pandemic, Morton was very conscious that the humanising support the HOPE Project offers was diminished.
“People who rough sleep say the worst thing about it is not sleeping on the floor, it’s when people look through you or don’t even look at you, like you don’t exist,” she said. “It’s very dehumanising.
“One of the most challenging parts of the first lockdown was not being able to stop and talk. Just to have conversations was a big part of what we do. But we weren’t able to do that with Covid. We just had to leave packed lunches and hot drinks and little care packs in a place for them to pick up while keeping our distance all the time, and let them know why we couldn’t chat.”
How did it feel to win the award?
“I was really surprised, to be honest – particularly as I won an award once before for outreach work. The award is really for our whole site at Belle Vale, because without them the HOPE Project wouldn’t have anything to take out. They really are very generous, kind-hearted people. And a lot of people don’t think of DWP staff as being like that. The site management where I work were absolutely made up that I won. “
What lessons for other parts of the civil service are there from your experience?
“I would encourage anyone to get involved with local community stuff. It’s really, really rewarding and everybody thinks you’re really altruistic but I get a lot more out of it than I put in. If you’ve had a bad week at work and you’re feeling sorry for yourself, when you go out it helps to clear your head and remember there’s still a lot of people who need help and who are in a lot worse position than yourself. It can help you realise what you’ve got to be grateful for.”
How did you celebrate the awards win?
“When I won the Volunteering Award in 2017, it was pre-Covid and I was able to take my mum with me to Lancaster House in London, which was lovely and really fancy. This time it was a virtual ceremony, but the awards people sent everyone who was shortlisted a really nice hamper and we got a bottle of prosecco and some nice Fortnum and Mason goodies. So it was just that. My mum’s a big part of what we do with the Hope Project, so we raised a little glass that night. “
Who nominated you for the award?
“It was one of my colleagues, Rachel Dever. She works for HM Passport Office now because she got promoted just before the ceremony. She nominates me for everything, she’s like my biggest cheerleader.”