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M&M's. Makeup. Bank receipt. NYC homeless people reveal which items they value the most

A collection of photos and interviews with some of New York City's homeless citizens is shining a light on stories of redemption and hope. The Homeless Essentials photo documentary project, which published online last month, was put together by a creative team who wanted to humanize some of the more vulnerable members of society with their most cherished, remaining possessions. 

Simon Dolsten and Chris Bosler, the creators of Homeless Essentials, both work in advertising agencies in New York City. They told CBS News they wanted to "raise awareness" about the growing homelessness epidemic in the city. 

"In New York, homelessness is everywhere," Dolsten told CBS News. 

A homeless man sleeps while he rides a subway on January 30, 2019, in New York City.  Getty

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's most recent assessment report, the number of people experiencing homelessness has been rising. The HUD's annual survey found that on a single night in January 2018, there were a total of 552,830 homeless people across the country. New York City had 78,676 — or about 14 percent of the nation's homeless population. The city's homeless population was 76,501 the year prior, signaling a 2.4 percent increase since 2017.

Dolsten and Bosler brainstormed on how to show the daily struggle of being homeless by taking a page from magazines that salivate over celebrities' prized items. The pair, along with photographer Gabrielle Lincoln, focused on people who own the least, but take pride in the most basic essentials.

The team partnered with Urban Pathways, a non-profit organization that provides housing and support to homeless adults, and interviewed several people over a 10-week period.

Ian, who Dolsten said has inspiring "story arc," is a 30-year-old recovering heroin addict. Ian spent the last four years on the street before sobering up and moving into Urban Pathways housing.

"Heroin is an indescribable hell," he told Homeless Essentials. Some of the items in his photo were M&Ms, wet wipes, shower loofah and a framed picture of his daughter and girlfriend. He used M&Ms to stop smoking and revealed how having access to showers was humanizing after living on the streets.

Ian, 30, is a recovering heroin addict. Cafe Bustelo, M&Ms, framed picture of his daughter and girlfriend and wipes were his most prized items.  Gabriella Lincoln

"I had so much shame in myself and in my addiction to begin with that I didn't even want to be around anybody when I was on the street. So these [wipes] were so crucial to me. Now that I'm living in [Urban Pathways housing], I can shower twice a day, 10 times a day, it's a beautiful thing."

Ian also reflected on his kids, "My daughters are all the opposite of my bad side but a reflection of my good side. None of them were like me."

There were also heartbreaking tragedies.

When James, 53, lost his mother, he was awarded $36,000 in a lawsuit against the hospital that treated her. A day after taking a portion of the money out of the bank, he took out the rest, losing it all.

"I caught myself trying to have a good time, went somewhere where I wasn't supposed to go and someone put a mickey in my drink," James told Homeless Essentials. "The money I had waited nine years for, I lost in one day."

His photo shows the Chase bank withdrawal receipt for $36,073.42. James admitted it was the "deepest pain" he's felt his whole life, but he keeps it as a reminder of his past mistakes. Now, James is looking forward to getting his GED and improving his math skills.

James, 53, received $36,000 following his mother's death. He lost it and was in and out of rehab for years. His most essential items were: TASC GED book, Bible and picture of Mother Mary,  EPRA certificates, bank withdrawal receipt and wallet. Gabriella Lincoln

"I dropped out of the ninth grade and was never introduced to algebra or geometry so I'm stagnating," he said. "But I never give up on myself."

For Monica, a domestic abuse survivor and recovering alcoholic, makeup holds a special significance, a healing from her past.

Monica, 50, is a recovering alcoholic and domestic abuse survivor. Her certificate of completion from the Addiction Institute of New York, shea butter, makeup bag and various Elf makeup items are her most valued items. Gabriella Lincoln

"I have scars from when I went through violence," she told Homeless Essentials. "The shea butter, I like the way it makes my skin feel. It's a healer."

Since birth, Darrell has been battling hardships as well as epilepsy. He spent years sleeping on the train, but he is now trying to turn the corner with a unique item: an alchemy book.

"The day I was born was the day my grandmother died," he told Homeless Essentials. "She passed away in the same hospital...I always wanted to be a doctor but I couldn't afford it. Now I'm trying to learn different ways to go about it."

Darrell has been battling hardships since birth. His alchemy book and healthcare card are his most valued possessions.  Gabriella Lincoln

The Homeless Essentials team discovered one resounding theme from the people they spoke to: "resilience."

"We were inspired they still found hope," Lincoln said. "The items helped tell those stories."

Bosler said,"No matter what they went through, there's always this belief that things can be better."

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