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Citizens for Cambridge seeks solutions to city problems

Volunteer-based organization says it's dedicated to voicing the passion, ingenuity, and commitment of Cambridge citizens for the development of a better community for all
(left to right) Citizens for Cambridge members Bob Howison, John Egoff, Amanda Maxwell, June Anderson and Dan Clements. (on screen) Leanne Shanks and Keith Rivers.

Writing letters to the editor, circulating petitions or sharing concerns about municipal politics on social media might not always do the trick.

So, in 2015, when a group of citizens saw the need for a new and innovative community engagement approach in collaboration with the city, the region, and social service agencies, they came together to form Citizens for Cambridge.

The volunteer-based organization says it's dedicated to voicing the passion, ingenuity, and commitment of Cambridge citizens for the development of "a better community for all."

“The group has morphed and changed and adjusted to the times since it started," said founding member Dan Clements, who wanted to help to make a difference after retiring.

"That was when the drug crisis was starting to really hit the community. And concern began to grow.”

Clements, a Cambridge resident since 1973, saw a noticeable shift when he and his wife moved from Preston to Galt.

“When we moved into our Cambridge condo, a block or so away from The Bridges, we had no awareness about shelters nor the drug situation. It just wasn’t part of our world,” Clements said.

“Moving here, changed that. It was a shock. At that time, we blamed everything on The Bridges. We didn’t even know what it really was. Gradually, as we learned more about what was going on, we hooked up with a few other residents, and we learned that The Bridge was a fantastic place.”

The Bridges offers daily meals, a year-round emergency shelter, a drop-in centre, transitional bachelor apartments, and programming to support clients so they can move forward towards permanent and affordable housing.

Now former executive director of The Bridges Anne Tinker is among the group's eight members, some retired, some still working, and all from a variety of backgrounds including politics, health care, engineering, technology, education, and social services.

They include Keith Rivers, June Anderson, Leanne Shanks, Amanda Maxwell, Bob Howison, and John Egoff.

“I consider them to be progressive thinkers and from very different backgrounds who try to find new ways to solve old problems,” Clements said.

“They just want to jump in, and make a difference. Sometimes things fail, but there are things that do have legs and turn into something, and that is very rewarding.”

Tackling homelessness and the affordable housing crisis is a priority for the group which is eager to see the idea of building affordable housing over city-owned parking lots become a reality.

Ward 7 councillor Scott Hamilton pitched the idea to city council last month but it was defeated in a 5-4 vote. 

“We know that the challenge is always location. And we know that the city has many parking lots. And sometimes they are not used all of the time. So, we really support that initiative,” Clements said of Hamilton's motion which will be resurrected at the regional level by councillor Pam Wolf on Jan. 24.

Another project that's top of mind for the Citizens is continued support for light-rail transit.

“We’ve spoken, delegated and written letters to try to encourage the LRT idea to continue. Yes, costs have increased, but that does not mean that we don’t need public transit because, having spoken with experts, we do,” Clements said.

“It is essential for the long-term growth of our downtown.”

Citizens for Cambridge aims to contribute to community development and engagement by bringing existing organizations together to help build cooperative relationships.

“There are an awful lot of talented people in many different groups, organizations and in government. We’ve spent a lot of time developing relationships with them,” Clements said.

“There could be two or more working on the same issue, but they are unaware of each other. We try to bring them together,” Clements said. “I’m amazed at the number of agencies and groups that are out there, that we didn’t know about. And they are very dedicated to their causes,” Clements said.

When the Citizens heard about Indwell, a Hamilton-based Christian charity that supports vulnerable adults and develops supportive housing across the province, they brought it to the attention of anyone that would listen.

“There were no Indwell locations in Cambridge. We came to realize how critical they are,” Clements said. "The need was huge."

So, they met with Indwell, told them how Cambridge could benefit, and the rest is history.

Indwell purchased and is now renovating the Grand River Hotel in Preston.

“And they are committed to several more locations in Cambridge. This is an example of something that started as an idea, we learned about it from experts, and then we saw it happen," Clements said.

They were also behind the development of the Cambridge Neighbourhood Table.

The program was created in collaboration with Kinbridge using a communal dining approach.

Keith Rivers has been with Citizens for Cambridge from the beginning knowing one of its key goals was tackling homelessness.

"I worked with the House of Friendship on their capital campaign for the addictions facility. That really got me involved with the community. It all snowballed from there, and then the Cambridge Neighbourhood Table came out of all of that,” Rivers said, adding it's not about receiving acknowledgement for what the organization does. 

"We care about getting projects done. We rely on experts to better understand what the needs are in the community and how those needs can be addressed. We want to bring organizations together, 'boots on the ground' to get something done. That’s our goal."

He said he's proud of what the group accomplished with the Neighbourhood Table.

“It gets people engaged, introduces them to other organizations, and helps them to get off the streets.”

It has now grown to an evening event every Friday. A second location was just added and the goal is to have a location that offers meals five nights a week in Cambridge.

“We care deeply for Cambridge, we love Cambridge.  We are very sensitive to the current issues that the city faces, and we think this city is a fantastic place to live in and grow up in,” Rivers said.

Citizens member Leanne Shanks moved here from Moncton, New Brunswick before the pandemic hit and was motivated to join the group to continue her commitment to getting involved in her community in her new hometown.

In Moncton, there really wasn’t an issue of people experiencing homelessness, she said. 

"I’ve learned since the pandemic that this is no longer the case. This is a growing problem and when I see it playing out on my own streets, it’s heart breaking," she said. “I’m a big believer in that if you are not part of the solution, you are actually part of the problem.”

June Anderson brings 20 years of experience from the Cambridge Self Help Foodbank as a spiritual care provider.

Now retired from that role, she volunteers at Trinity Community Table.

"I have lunch with the guests, I find out how they are doing. Sometimes they just need to talk to someone," Anderson said. "I am on this committee because I have such respect for the people around this table. But also, I want to be involved with something that is going to make some active change."

“We want to see Cambridge be the best that it can be, and we are passionate about that. We have found each other and have taken the time to get active on serious issues with a representative voice.”

For more information or to subscribe to the Citizens for Cambridge newsletter, visit Facebook or the organization website here.