Concordia University

Future 500 Interview: Eduardo Della Foresta

October 17, 2018
By Alex Tigchelaar

The Future 500 Interview is a monthly Q&A with affiliates of the Institute for Urban Futures.
eduardo-della-foresta Photo by Carmela Santoianni

Eduardo Della Foresta has less than an hour before he has to pick his wife up at the hair salon in Laval, so we do our interview driving in that direction. Della Foresta is an MFA candidate at Concordia in Studio Arts. He becomes visibly emotional when he talks about Atelier Mobile Montréal, which he built to provide people suffering from episodic or chronic homelessness with tools and art supplies. At one point he stops and parks the car to adequately express how deeply the project has moved him. Della Foresta is a man struck by the multiple possibilities that life brings. He is taken by its occasionally brutal unpredictability. It is in spaces of hard luck and uncertainty where he works to construct meaningful connections with people.

Institute for Urban Futures: Tell us about the Atelier Mobile Montréal. Why did you create it?

Eduardo Della Foresta: I grew up in Park Ex. I worked with my father, as did my brothers, from the time I was ten, going along in the truck working construction. We would also work in the dépanneur that my parents had opened in order to survive. So getting into the truck and being mobile was something that I grew up with, something I enjoyed, driving around in the Ford Econoline with my dad.

When I was ten years old I was hit by a truck in front of the church we attended. It threw me thirty feet and I landed head first onto the ground. At that point there wasn’t anything recognizable as an issue so after being in the hospital under observation, I was released. Still, I felt at that point that my mind was functioning in a different way, in an altered state. My parents being who they are, and religious and educated the way they were, would spiritualize this event and say that God saved you, God protected you. This was the story I grew up with. Jump forward twenty years, I’m in Toronto, where I have moved just to try things out and to give myself a break from my family, and by family I mean my father. I was driving my car and I had a seizure. I didn’t realize at that time that I had epilepsy, so I accelerated with my wife in the car, and I went straight into a hydro pole. The engine block came into the car. We both suffered numerous injuries.

IUF: This is the incident that led you to your current path.

EDF: Yes. So the first truck accident that inevitably causes that area of my brain to become chronically epileptic, which I’m not aware of. I could have been having seizures my entire life, when I was sleeping, and been entirely unaware of it. I just happened to find out about it while I’m driving another car. And so there’s this huge trauma. I lose my business because I can’t operate it, I lose my life savings, I have zero money. I have to convalesce, so I come back to Montréal. I’m sleeping on my brother’s sofa, my life is over. What am I going to do? At that point I decide, well, I’ve never had a formal education, so I decide to go to Concordia to do a BFA. At the end of my degree I start working with at risk teens. I start an arts based project for the group home I’m working at. I start to see the positive effects that the arts can have, and as a form of harm reduction.

I’m studying philosophy. My brain wasn’t functioning properly. I didn’t realize I was learning disabled from the car accident. Where the lesion rests is on the front left lobe. When I was doing my BFA I received one of my papers back and I received 2%. And they were like, “this meets none of the requirements”. I didn’t even remember writing it. I went to the Montréal Neurological Institute. A test revealed I had problems. That’s when I decided to study philosophy because as Cicero says, philosophy is the greatest medicine for the mind. So I figured by pushing myself through philosophy, I would find a way, through neuroplasticity, to rework my mind. And that’s what I did. Suddenly I went from 2% to graduating with distinction.

IUF: Okay, let’s get to the van!

EDF: I want to get to the van too! But the getting to the van is the realization of all of the steps.

My mother dies of ovarian cancer and soon after I start working with men who have lived with episodic or chronic homelessness. I start listening to their stories. And there are a lot of similarities: death of a mother, depression, cognitive issues. These are all things that I had encountered as well. Be it for just one or two different steps in a different direction, I could be chronically homeless. All it would take is a few more little missteps in the wrong direction and I would be in the same position.

Through my job as a caseworker with Project logement Montréal, I’ve been working for over three years following eighteen individuals through their process of reintegration. I’ve been following them, accompanying them to doctors, emergency rooms and all of the sudden I’m confronted with their existence and their life and how much this stigma and this aesthetic of homelessness is stopping them from receiving basic care, basic empathy, basic compassion. There are so many episodes where I’ve brought individuals to the hospital and there’s no way this individual was coherent enough to sign a right of refusal. But they’ll have them sign it and show them the door. Why? Because they’re guilty of being or looking homeless. This aesthetic stigma ends up destroying their lives.

I became frustrated with this aspect and also these individuals who have been disaffiliated because they have been rejected again and again and again by different institutions. So I thought to myself, what is it that I can do to create a safe place where people can just not have to face the institution? Not ask someone to come and meet you where you are, but actually for you to displace yourself and go to where they are. So this is the story of the Atelier Mobile Montréal.

IUF: Who uses the Atelier?

EDF: The individuals I work with all have skills, they have all worked in manufacturing at some point. And I wanted them to have access to those tools and that space again in their lives, where they can fabricate, where they can create meaning. There is a path to homelessness that often goes like this: loss of time, loss of space, loss of relations, then a loss of the body. So if you can connect someone through material, that disaffiliation starts to reverse. The same way that brain plasticity can be changed. The things that we make with our hands can change the physical structure of our brain, and not only be a tool of harm reduction, but also ignite significant change in someone’s life.

IUF: Thank you for your powerful words, Eduardo. I’ll ask you one last question: What does your urban future include?

EDF: In my urban future I see accessibility to all forms of making for everyone. I would love to see maker spaces that provide material and space to anyone throughout Montréal. Meaning there would be different satellites, as well as mobile satellites. Thinking about all forms of creation and making ensure those elements are out there. My urban future includes artists using their creative agency to provide those services to people who would otherwise not have access to these resources.

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