It’s Well Past Time for Equity in Services in Cambridge

Many of us take for granted the high quality of living in Waterloo Region. The long-time hashtag for anything related to our community is #WRAwesome, because we know this is a special place to call home. However, there is often a reluctance to talk about geographic disparities. In my career as a leader in the non-profit sector, and as a resident of Cambridge, I find I am often speaking up about disparities in supports and services in Cambridge compared to the rest of Waterloo Region.

Last June I wrote an article about the Children and Youth Planning Table’s Youth Impact Survey results, and how youth in Cambridge reported significantly lower results in physical health, mental health, community belonging, access to programs and recreation, and other indicators. Since then, little has been done from a high level to close this gap.

As the word “amalgamation” has been floating around, it is more essential than ever that equity for Cambridge be addressed by all levels of government. It has always been like this; I grew up in Cambridge and our access to services has never been equitable. Like many other systemic inequalities around us, the pandemic made this geographic disparity more pronounced. Simply, your level of services, supports, and opportunities should not be dictated by which side of the 401 you live.

Recently, Wellbeing Waterloo Region released a report conducted by the University of Waterloo on residents’ wellbeing, with results presented based on the municipality they call home. Once again, the overall quality of life, sense of wellbeing and belonging, and access to resources in Cambridge measures well behind the Region as a whole, and by our urban peers, Kitchener and Waterloo.

The report is over 100 pages, with the majority of results pointing to greater challenges faced by residents in Cambridge. Some of the most stunning results include:

Income and Work

  • Cambridge has the lowest levels of residents earning over $150,000. Despite lower earnings, residents in Cambridge work more hours to make ends meet, with 6.2% working 55 hours or more per week in their main job, and a whopping 28.3% of respondents working 20 or more hours a week in a second job.
  • This affects general wellbeing, as only 37.2% in Cambridge agreed they are in a better mood because of their job – 10.2% lower than in Waterloo.
  • 3% more Cambridgeites are skipping meals because they don’t have enough money for food compared to Waterloo residents, with 13.7% in Cambridge reporting eating less than they need at least once a month. Similarly, 15.1% more residents in Cambridge said they couldn’t buy the things they needed compared to Waterloo residents.
  • This income gap impacts housing security, as Cambridge had the highest rate of residents spending more than 50% of their income on housing, leaving more residents in Cambridge at risk of housing precarity and homelessness.

Trust in Institutions

  • Across several indicators, Cambridge residents had the lowest level of trust in institutions, which may not be surprising if residents feel those institutions are not meeting their needs. For example, only 39.7% of residents had confidence in our local school system, a full 14.9% lower than residents in Waterloo. Both Cambridge and North Dumfries residents had below average confidence in local police services, with residents in both municipalities having the lowest number of residents agreeing that the police can be relied on to be there when you need them.
  • When it comes to our healthcare system, the newly formed Cambridge and North Dumfries Ontario Health Team has its work cut out for it, with only 38.3% in Cambridge having confidence in the system, the lowest in the Region, and 9% lower than residents in Waterloo.
  • Despite many services being delivered regionally, there is a significant gap in perception of how well these services reach Cambridge residents. Only 31.9% in Cambridge feel that programs and services of local government have made them better off, compared to 42.9% regionally, and a full 17.7% lower than in Waterloo.
  • This mistrust in institutions impacts the way residents engage in and trust local government, something local politicians and our Regional government should take note of. More than half of Cambridge residents - 51.1% - agreed with the statement: “I do not think public officials care much what people like me think.” This is more than 11% higher than the Regional average, and 17% lower than our peers in Waterloo.
  • This mistrust is also eroding trust in local democracy, with only 26.2% feeling satisfied with how well democracy is working in our community, more than 10% lower than the Regional average, and more than 16% lower than in Waterloo.

A Supportive Community

  • The waning trust in institutions also extends to perceptions of supports within the community. 58.9% in Cambridge agreed that there are many people in this community to help if someone needs it, 8 points behind Kitchener, and 11.5% behind Waterloo.
  • Many in the social services and health fields have been advocating for equitable services in Cambridge, and Cambridge residents agree. 52% believe that if they need help, this community has many excellent services to meet their needs. This result is more than 12% lower than residents in Kitchener.
    • Two significant examples of disparity in services are the lack of emergency shelter beds for women and youth in Cambridge. If a woman or youth in Cambridge becomes homeless (a far more frequent experience these days), they must leave their community and social network to get a roof over their head.

Mental and Physical Health

  • While residents in Cambridge reported lower trust in institutions including healthcare, they also reported lower self-assessed mental and physical health. Residents in Cambridge were less likely to report their physical health as “very good” or “excellent”, compared to residents in all other municipalities.
  • Relevant to our work and advocacy at Porchlight Counselling and Addictions, only 10.9% of Cambridge residents agreed with the statement: “I feel local mental health resources are adequate,” the lowest result in the Region.
  • Cambridge had only 55.7% feeling satisfied with their mental health, which again was the lowest result in the Region.

Community Engagement and Social Isolation

  • The above data feeds into lower community engagement and a heightened sense of loneliness in Cambridge. 6.9% fewer people in Cambridge had reported volunteering in the past year compared to the Regional average.
  • 9% of Cambridge residents agreed with the statement: “I often feel that I lack companionship,” below the Regional average.
  • A resident’s sense of belonging often indicates levels of community engagement, inclusion, and access to programs and spaces that support their wellbeing and community integration. Cambridge had the fewest residents reporting a strong sense of belonging to their community at 54.4% compared to 61.6% Regionally, and more than 10% lower than their Waterloo peers.
  • Not surprisingly, Cambridge and North Dumfries residents were least likely to agree that recreation and culture facilities are easy to get to, with both municipalities also being the most likely to agree that the cost of public recreation and culture programs prevent them from participating.

The key takeaway from this report, and other reports which similarly point to inequities across the Regional landscape, is that the status quo is not working for Cambridge. This data should spur local leaders into action. Local governments, funders, and service providers should be having meetings and summits about how to correct this imbalance. Everyone is struggling right now, there is no doubt about that, but without real action from our community leaders to invest in Cambridge, this equity gap will continue to grow. This includes the private sector; we need significant investment in the wellbeing of our community in order to equal the playing field.

And though this data paints a bleak picture in Cambridge compared to our Regional peers, we don’t point this out to be critical of our community. In fact, one of the issues we see repeatedly in these conversations is people from other parts of the community playing the blame game rather than working with Cambridge-based leaders to find a collective solution. Nothing is wrong with Cambridge, this is a systemic funding issue we all need to work together to fix. And these outcomes are not reflective of the incredible work that is happening on the frontlines to support our neighbours.

At Porchlight we envision a community where emotional and mental health and well-being are prioritized and destigmatized. To move in this direction, we need to have uncomfortable conversations, develop new partnerships, and shift programs and funding to meet the needs in Cambridge. We see our non-profit partners like YWCA Cambridge, the Cambridge Foodbank, House of Friendship, the Cambridge Ontario Health Team, Rhythm and Blues Cambridge, and the Cambridge Shelter are doing incredible work to be there for the people who need their supports. Our community has the answers, we just have to fund them.

For myself, Cambridge is my home and chosen community, where my child is growing up and learning about the world. I want to make sure that my kid, and all of her peers in Cambridge, have the same opportunities and supports as kids across the Region. Let’s start this important discussion for a more equitable Waterloo Region.

A shorter, edited version of this piece was published in the Cambridge Times by Robyn Schwarz.

Porchlight's moving!

Our office at 18 Walnut St. will be closing for the final time on June 19th.

Our new office, located at 203-1315 Bishop St. N., will be opening for its first day of operations on June 24th.

All programs currently based out of our Walnut St. office will be moved to this new location. No other programs or operations at other facilities will be impacted. If you are unsure how you'll be impacted, please ask your counsellor or contact our reception desk at (519) 621-5090.

Please consider joining us for a drop in open house at our new office on June 26th from 3:00pm to 4:30pm.

Details and registration are available here.