County Foundation offers Vital Signs report to Rotary

HARD FACTS (left) Dominique Jones, executive director for The County Foundation and (right) Anne Van Vlack, Vital Signs Coordinator and Community Engagement person for The County Foundation spoke to The Rotary Club of Picton on Tuesday at their 29th meeting of the 2022-2023 Rotary year. (Submitted photo)

 

DESIRÉE DECOSTE

STAFF WRITER

At its 29th meeting of the 2022-2023 Rotary year, the local Picton club listened as Anne Van Vlack and Dominique Jones of  The County Foundation offered a high level report on the organization’s most recent Vital Signs report

Van Vlack, Vital Signs Coordinator and Community Engagement person for The County Foundation, and Jones executive director spoke to no less than 30 club members regarding the overall communal health and areas of concern in Prince Edward County.

The County Foundation is one of 201 such organizations across Canada and support the residents and organizations of Prince Edward County (PEC) through a myriad of methods including the administration of philanthropic funds and deep dive data collection that monitors community health levels and measures trends of both fiscal and immaterial or intangible issues.

“Our vision is to work together to build a place where everyone belongs,” Jones said. “There are three main activities that the county foundation works with, the first is collecting and analyzing data to produce reports like Vital Signs. The second is developing charitable funds and facilitating grants to community groups to build capacity and address community needs. This is a function we are probably most widely known for in terms of our grant facilitation, but its not all that we do. The third is catalyzing and supporting collaborative action towards transformative change. We work with community groups to address priorities in PEC and we recognize we are not always going to have all the answers and we’re not going to have all the resources and ability to solve them but, we think through collaboration we can come together and hopefully work towards a resolution.”

Part of the collection of data  Van Vlack collects is not just statistical from sources such as Statistics Canada, but it’s also a collection of local data which she collects through meetings with countless local organizations and individuals to get a sense of the pulse of the community. 

“So the areas we look at there are actually nine different vital signs areas that our foundation looks at,” stated Van Vlack. “Different foundations, not all of them, cover vital signs and do vital signs reporting and they can choose areas that are specific to their needs in their community. In our case we cover nine different areas and so for example those would include Food Security, transportation, education, health, economy, housing, safety, environment and community.”

When the initial Vital Signs report came out through The County Foundation in 2013, the responses were mixed.

“That was pre my time with the foundation and the response to that report were quite mixed,” Van Vlack said. “It revealed some weaknesses in our community that in some cases people weren’t terribly happy about that information being made public and other people were really glad the statistics that were specific to PEC because thats been a challenge and continues to be a challenge. Many of our services are combined with regions around us, for example health is Hastings Prince Edward, economy is a larger economy at region, social services is also and so sometimes trying to separate that data for PEC is quite challenging.”

Stark and jarring results in the 2013 report included three areas that were identified as major weaknesses in PEC.

Low education rates indicated local secondary students were unable to make the grade. About 75 per cent of PEC high school students actually graduate, a level that’s below the provincial average.

Another poor community health indicator  was a high level of food insecurity. A larger than the provincial average segment of the community were utilizing food banks to make ends meet.

Finally, a lack of public transportation and the effects on the folks in the community that don’t have personal motor vehicles was impinging on personal development in terms of education, ability to take part in the work force, secure food, etc.

While the data was difficult to digest, it brought about notable successes, one of which is still in operation as a pilot project.

“County Transit was launched in 2020 right at the height of the pandemic,” said Van Vlack. “Talk about a challenging time to try and launch public transit, but it had taken years and years with groups working together and raising funds to launch that and so it was timely and ridership is increasing and its a great service, very much needed. During that time with the groups working together, a lot of money has been raised towards these initiatives and I think its over $2 million thats been invested back into the community just through those collaborative initiatives, and so by working together it makes quite a difference.”

The County Foundation’s Vital Signs reports data changes quite frequently which means reporting more often.

“In the Vital Signs report we are finding data changes really quickly so were finding were needing to do reporting more frequently,” Van Vlack stated. “In the past they were mostly based on Census years and sometimes in term reports. There is a lot more data available to us now and we can report more frequently but the pandemic showed us the need for having good, accurate data and more frequently. So going forward we’ll be doing reporting annually, but in some cases it will be an online format because of the cost of printing and how quickly it gets out of date and so the newest report, for example, has updates. We do have an online data bank now that I update monthly, or more frequently.”

While some levels tend to stay static in more normal times, many sections of Vital Signs that were covered in the presentation are the ones mostly affected by the pandemic.

“I think every area of our lives were affected, but some changes were accelerated more quickly,” said Van Vlack. “So the 2022 Vital Signs report focusses of those changes and how the pandemic accelerated those changes and also how is PEC recovering and adapting and preparing for the future. This isn’t the end of pandemics I’m sure, as much as I hate to think that, were not out of the woods yet.”

One of the changes affecting Prince Edward County that wasn’t expected was shifts in the population.

“Over the past few years we expected our seniors population will continue to grow more quickly then the other ones, that was expected,” Van Vlack said. “But there were other things that happened too. We had a lot of new families that moved into PEC during the pandemic and it boosted the population, especially in the youth category ages 0-8 and that wasn’t expected. Our youth population has been declining for 15 years and the effects of that- we’ve had to close schools and we were becoming more middle aged and senior population here. And so a result of that youth growth- and there wasn’t an increase in birth rate here it was a flat birth rate- these were new families moving in that boosted that age population.”

Precipitously, these growths in youth population mean an influx to the primary grades and daycares are overflowing.

“What a change that has been,” expressed Van Vlack. “The other thing that’s happening that was expected to some extent is that the middle ages, the working ages that would be 15-64 generally, continues to decline. So that, among another number of other issues, is a problem for our labour force. So there is a shortage of labour in almost every sector and that will continue to be the case.”

 The growth projections for housing starts and housing developments is exponential compared to what it has been.

“I think in the next, probably three years, you’re going to see some significant changes to the number of houses that we have here and the population,” Van Vlack offered. “And were also seeing a shift in our demographics so we’ve had over 6,000 new residents that have moved into PEC in the last five years, most of those will be from large urban centres. We’ve also had over 5,000 people leave, which I find quite frightening and a lot of those have been longer-term residents. The information is anecdotal that we can collect as to why they left but from what I hear from a number of sources is a lot of it is attributed to the housing crisis, people just can’t afford the housing here. And there have been rent evictions with people who have been living in more affordable housing, those units are often purchased by developers and so people have to move.”

Part of PEC’s populatio you don’t see in Statistics Canada is that we’re over 26,000 people now but with over 8,000 seasonal residents.

“So that’s about 30 per cent of our population as seasonal residents,” said Van Vlack. “That’s a really hard thing to adjust services for because there is no predictable time that seasonal residents will be here.”

While PEC is not the only community in Ontario affected by critical housing shortages but with a proximity to  Toronto and a big tourism destination, our community seems more affected than others.  

“Our cost of housing here went up more so than some areas so you have high housing costs that put more pressure on the rental market and so there’s been competition and bidding wars on rentals and our rental prices are about equivalent to Toronto,” Van Vlack stated. “For people with local incomes, housing is just not attainable. So there is more homelessness, and we don’t often see it in the same way that cities do but I think were on the brink of seeing more of it possibly. It is quite concerning. People who are on fixed incomes and pensions are really, really feeling the pinch of the higher cost of living and inflation right now. Especially for people, for example, on Ontario Disability, they don’t often have a safety network and they can barely survive on the income they’re currently making, it hasn’t caught up with cost of inflation for a long time. And so the province has been helping with rental subsidies but  there’s real concern those rental subsidies won’t continue and so that frightens me as to what are these people without a safety net going to do.”

When Vital Signs looks at the economy, it’s more towards poverty reduction and the emphasis on that.

“With the high inflation rates, apparently about 3 in 4 Canadian households are concerned about their ability to meet the basic day-to-day expenses,” said Van Vlack. “And when I talked to different providers here on food security and Prince Edward Learning Centre, they tell me they see a lot of people who are not eating enough. They can’t put gas in their car because they don’t have enough money. And some have even stopped paying their insurance premiums on their houses and their life insurance and so on which is really concerning. Programs that empower people to move ahead financially are really the answer- you can’t just keep throwing money to people and thinking that your solving a problem, you need to be more proactive then that.”

For health and wellbeing, The County Foundation pointed out COIVD wasn’t just a health problem but it certainly has been hard on people on the health care system.

“Its been a long three years,” Van Vlack expressed to Rotary. “If there was only one benefit that came out of the pandemic, it’s the fact that it really pushed us ahead with technology. Pretty amazing shifts from some of our local organizations. It has enabled residents, and these advances are more acceptable to more people now.”

However,  outcomes from the pandemic has really stressed the healthcare system.

“Its also created a lot of mental health issues, and particularly among the youth, they were really hard hit. All of those changes to their routine and with school and uncertainty about their future, there is a lot of feeling of hopelessness among our youth, and apparently only one in two youth really feel like they have good mental health and theres not nearly enough health facilities to help with that. The other thing that happened was a lot of people put off regular healthcare, concern of going into the hospital and all the obstacles there. So when they do get in for healthcare, often the situation has gone beyond what it would if they had been able to get in sooner,” she said.

The final topic touched on in the meeting was food security and the lack of it within PEC.

“With inflation, and I think all of us have felt the high cost of food,” said Van Vlack. “So for people who are on fixed and low income, there not able to purchase healthy food as those costs have skyrocketed. Many people are not eating as much as they would like to or are skipping meals, especially in the case of parents. They’ll make sure their kids have food but they will do without themselves, so were seeing really increased rates of food insecurity. The local food banks tell us the number of people they are seeing has gone up by 26 per cent in the last year and a food bank is one of the last things that people will do when they’re food insecure, they will do without a lot a lot of other things but they won’t go to a food bank. So only about 25 per cent of people who really need food are seeing it at food banks. People are really having to make choices between paying rent, buying healthy food, getting their medications, putting gas in their car, getting clothes and so on. Choices that they shouldn’t have to make. The schools are really seeing this too, a lot of students are coming to school hungry and sometimes the school meal programs are the best meal those kids are going to get during the day. And it’s harder for the food banks too because food prices have gone up and donations have gone down and its also harder to get some of the items in bulk. And it’s not just food, it’s basic necessities so toiletries and so on.”

Van Vlack added one of the really alarming things regarding food security is it really isn’t a food problem, it’s generally an income problem.

“We have plenty of food it’s just not distributed equitably,” Van Vlack said in closing. “Canada ranks 24th in the world for affordability of food, and it’s not that we don’t have the food. So the main drivers for food insecurity generally are linked to income and so precarious employment which has really increased, part-time jobs, jobs without benefits, it’s also lack of affordable housing and its in adequate social assistance programs, so pensions, especially Ontario Works and Ontario Disability have not increased with inflation. Food banks are just an emergency solution, but it has become beyond that, so many people are relying on it now just to survive on an ongoing basis.”

The 2023 Vital Signs report focus will be on inclusion and belonging which will be produced in September as a digital report.

For more information on Vital Signs please visit vitalsigns.thecountyfoundation.ca/ or pecdata.ca

For more information on The Rotary Club of Picton please visit pictonrotary.ca/