We asked the people who have the least what they value the most.
Homeless Essentials is a photo documentary that tells the stories of homeless people through their most essential items. The interviews and photographs, captured at a drop-in center and safe haven in Manhattan, tell deeply personal stories of pain, addiction and loss but also of hope and ingenuity. We were moved by how small, ordinary items can take on an extraordinary meaning in the face of tremendous adversity.
Ian, 30 years old
Addicted to heroin for 5 years. Homeless for 4 years. Overdosed 3 times. Clean for 10 months.
Ian spent the last four years living on the streets of Manhattan, selling and using heroin, before getting clean and moving into Urban Pathways housing. When asked what items were most essential to him, he first pointed to his methadone clinic ID card. After that, he mentioned wet wipes and a shower loofah, noting how access to everyday hygiene brought back a sense of humanity. “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,” he said.
Teary-eyed, he next brought out a picture of his daughter. And despite not always being able to spend time with his family, he took comfort knowing they lived different lives from him. “My daughters are all the opposite of my bad side but a reflection of my good side. None of them were like me. None of them did drugs or drank or anything like that. I have the most beautiful, amazing, just wonderful mothers for my daughters. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
james, 53 years old
Received $36,000 after his mother passed. Had it stolen 72 hours later. In and out of rehab for a decade. Now recovering and studying for his GED.
All of James’ essentials tell stories of perseverance and resilience. Despite the tremendous hurt, he still holds on to the $36,000 bank withdrawal receipt as a reminder of his past mistakes. Looking toward the future, he counts his TASC GED book as one of his most important essentials. “I’m working on getting my GED. For the last two years, I’ve been in school and every time I get a test, I pass. The only thing I need now is my math. I dropped out of the ninth grade and was never introduced to algebra or geometry so I’m stagnating. But I never give up on myself,” he said.
Faith plays an important part in his journey toward self-forgiveness. “It’s a picture of Mary. I keep it because it’s a reminder and reflection of my mother. She passed away in 2007 of cancer. I stopped going to see her because I was a Certified Nurse's Aide so I had seen the signs of her not coming home. I kind of regret that. So I keep this close to me as a reminder,” he said. Equally important to him is his Bible. “Once in a while when I have a dull moment, I read the Twenty Third Psalm. My mother always told me the Lord's Prayer works. I don’t believe you have to get on your knees and all that. God can hear you wherever you go,” he said.
monica, 50 years old
Domestic abuse survivor. Recovering alcoholic. Taking it one day at a time.
For Monica, makeup is more than just makeup. It covers up the wounds of violent and abusive relationships. Relationships where she was taken advantage of because of her addiction. “I had boyfriends that would get me drunk and then turn around and abuse me...as long as I was drunk, they could do certain things to me,” she said. Family pressures add an additional layer of difficulty to her situation. “The family thing, they stress me out...I’m the only one that's single in my family. They all have spouses and everybody is a homeowner and sitting around with new cars,” she said.
Although she’s very dedicated, her path to sobriety is not a straight one. “I've had this problem for quite some time and it brought me back to my knees. It took everything from me and I'm back at square one with it, but if you don't have a plan, you plan to fail,” she said. One recent milestone is especially important to her. “I’m proud of myself, because I got this certificate. I was in a meeting yesterday and I got a key that says, no matter what, you will not use drugs. Whatever happens, you won’t use drugs,” she said.
casey, 59 years old
Former caretaker. Current feminist. Months away from Senior Citizen Housing. Moments away from making a difference.
One of the biggest unseen hardships facing homeless people is loneliness. Despite access to smartphones through government programs, they often feel cut off from society, lacking close personal relationships. “Nobody calls me. I don’t have family or friends. I have some acquaintances but they’re old. I just use it to pay for things,” Casey said.
But she is positive. Looking back at her life, she maintains a sense of gratefulness, owing it to her faith. A green pendant cross serves as a reminder of that. “I’ve been through a lot. It’s been bad. But God has also taken care of me. I’ve been to San Francisco, Hawaii, Mexico, New York. And I worked at Stanford. I was the personal caretaker of a professor. The night he died, he got up and told me ‘Casey, I’m ok.’ Later that night, he was gone,” she said. Still, she sees a lot of things ahead of her. Looking at her ID she noted, “I’m too young to be old, too old to be young.”
TENNISha, 45 years old
Lost her apartment. Slept on the subway. Getting back on her feet. Hoping for a place to call home.
Out of all the people we talked to, Tennisha interpreted her essentials in the most functional way possible. Her items were a sort of homeless survival guide. On the importance of food storage she said, “A lot of the lunch places will give you little baggies and things like that. Food might get ruined in your bag or you might drop it. You keep it in something like this [plastic container], it might save your life.” For her, another essential, perfume, could mean the difference between getting a job and not getting one. “The public bathrooms will get to you. If you're going to a job interview, you don't want to smell like you're homeless. Good perfume will save you,” she said.
Her tablet, however, serves both a functional and recreational purpose. “You can use it to try to find work and resources. But I also use it for painting, digital painting. A couple of people suggested I try selling the paintings. I'm trying to get the courage, I just don't have it right now,” she said. And while not a physical essential, Starbucks plays an important role in her life. “They make me feel like a human being. They all know me by name...my drink order... and I’m never a squatter. I always try to make sure I buy something,” she said.
Darrell, 58 years old
Born into pain. Struggled to survive. Fighting disease, hoping for disability support.
Having your birth punctuated by a family member’s death isn’t an easy way to enter the world. For many years after, Darrell faced hardship after hardship. In adulthood, he spent years sleeping on the train, fighting both physically and emotionally for his survival. Adding to it, he suffers from epilepsy, a disease that’s difficult to manage even if you’re not homeless. As a result, his healthcare card is a crucial essential. “Medicaid and welfare don’t cover everything. When I have seizures, the ambulance comes for me. It’s something I take medicine every day for....I’ve applied for disability, this is the fifth time I’ve been denied,” he said.
Although Darrell didn’t have the luxury of pursuing higher education, knowledge is very important to him. On his library card he noted, “Brooklyn Library...it has a wealth of information. I never take out books, I just read them there.” As we prepared to photograph his book, we noticed tiny little notes scribbled inside. When asked what he writes, he said neither fiction nor non-fiction, “just the things that I feel.”
Homeless. Not hopeless.
In doing this project, we were continually moved by two themes: darkness and resilience. We saw how difficult life can be, how addiction can cause overdose after overdose. We heard stories of abuse, of how unkind humanity can become. We saw loss so difficult, so deep, that it took decades to recover from. Yet, outshining all these themes were resilience and a belief that things can and will get better.
Organizations like Urban Pathways make that a reality by providing meals, individualized services and housing to more than 3,700 homeless men and women each year. Donate now to help move homeless New Yorkers off the streets.
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