Once a Homeless Youth, Now a Leader Who’s Changing City Policies 

Lyndon Hernandez navigated NYC’s byzantine shelter system for almost a decade before finding stable housing and a career helping other homeless youths.

Sunny Nagpaul Oct 9

At 18, Lyndon Hernandez found himself at the doors of an adult homeless shelter in Manhattan. He left home in Jamaica, Queens after experiencing domestic violence. He had also watched his older brother’s mental health decline. 

For the next six years, Hernandez experienced the shortcomings in housing options and mental health care in the city’s three overlapping shelter systems — those for youth, adults and families. He re-entered the adult shelter system several times, as he couldn’t afford the housing he received through supportive programs after temporary rent aid ran out. The stress drove him to attempt suicide.

‘My dad just basically said, ‘do not come back.’ And I told him, ‘I’m not going to come back.’

Now 26 and the father of a five-year-old son, he’s earned a salary as the co-chair of the Coalition for Homeless Youth action board for the last two years and has secured a job as a peer navigator for Good Shepherd Services in the Bronx, eager to help other youth avoid the experiences he had. He feels he’s finally found a job that fulfills him and pays his bills.

“I’ve been homeless for that long,” Hernandez recalled. “It’s not a bad thing to be at a point where I’m strong enough to acknowledge that.” 

Through his leadership position at the coalition, he contributed to the city’s latest Plan to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness, with suggestions for adding a year of financial education about how to budget money and manage credit, for rapid rehousing programs and for more safety options for LGBTQ+ youth. 

Youth Shelters

Hernandez grew up as the oldest of three children in a situation he describes as “overcrowded.” He said he didn’t have the attention span to do well in school and decided to join the Job Corps, a federally-funded, free residential career-training and education program for low-income young adults. He was trained in maintenance work and received his high school diploma. 

“Being homeless was kind of my choice in a sense,” he said. “My dad just basically said, ‘Do not come back.’ And I told him, ‘I’m not going to come back, I’m going to seek my independence and try to do this on my own.’” 

Hernandez went to an adult men’s shelter in Manhattan, as he knew that adult shelter residents, not youth, have access to housing vouchers under the federal government’s Section 8 rules. At the time, adults were required to have spent at least 90 days in an adult shelter to become eligible for the vouchers, which help low-income tenants pay rent in housing where the landlord accepts them. Although he was 18, the minimum age needed to stay at an adult shelter, the staff told him he was too young. Instead, he was placed in transitional independent living, a long-term shelter program for 16- to 21-year olds, at a Sheltering Arms location in Queens. (Sheltering Arms, a 200-year-old youth charity the city hired for social services, closed earlier this year, blaming late reimbursements from the city.)

“I had my own room with a roommate, a kitchen, a pantry and laundry bin,” Hernandez said. There was a peer worker on-site at all times, a case manager in the building’s basement, and support for finding housing. The facility was more helpful than many adult shelters, he said, because they let residents cook and do laundry. He learned how to cook and budget for groceries, and worked as an assistant manager at Domino’s Pizza locations in Coney Island, Brownsville and Williamsburg.

But it was still a shelter, not a home of his own. “Every young person who becomes homeless has a goal to leave the shelter as fast as possible,” he said. 

He found an apartment through a “rapid rehousing” program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, opting for one in New Jersey because the rents there were lower. But when the city rent assistance ran dry after a year, he lost the apartment. 

“Rapid rehousing is meant to help get that young person housed rapidly into safety, but it’s without proper after-care support to make sure a young person transitions into that house,” Hernandez said. “A lot of times they wind up getting evicted or having to ask for public assistance, because they’re put in apartments where they may not meet the income needs.”

Nick Brasse, chief of staff at the Greater New York branch of Volunteers of America, a nonprofit antipoverty and social-services organization, believes a shortage of housing is one of the biggest reasons people are encouraged to try temporary housing, regardless of how often they end up returning to shelters. 

Juliana Lebron plays with her son and Lyndon Hernandez’s son.
Lyndon Hernandez prepares a meal for his family.
Hernandez’s current apartment building in Rego Park, Queens.
Photos by Olga Fedorova

“The temptation is to focus on the immediate issue and to invest resources and shelter to immediately take down what we have to deal with,” Brasse said. “But you have to make the long-term investment in supportive housing too.”

Hernandez insists a deeper issue lies in the City’s since-amended housing-voucher policies: Only people 18 or older and staying in adult shelters for at least 90 days are eligible to apply. Even though the law was changed in 2021 to count days spent in youth shelters towards the 90-day requirement, many nonprofit advocacy groups say that hasn’t been put into practice because of housing shortages.

In June, Mayor Eric Adams issued emergency rules to end the 90-day requirement. The advocacy group VOCAL-New York had pushed the City to eliminate that rule and provide more housing options for youth. Krystal Cerisier, a VOCAL-NY homeless union organizer, says the main reasons why youth are not able to secure housing vouchers are miscommunication and that shelter staff often can’t find housing to place them in.

“There’s a lack of shared knowledge, a lack of staff in the shelter system, period,” Cerisier said. “If a case manager has 60 people they have to house, and they first of all don’t have apartments to get people into, they can’t tell 60 people yes.”

The reality for Hernandez was bleaker — and forced him to spend months in various shelters each time his housing fell through.

“During my experience being homeless, we didn’t have many permanent housing options like we do now,” he said. “When me and my son’s mom found out we were expecting, they moved us to a shelter for pregnant adults and families, since there [were] no youth shelters for pregnant and parenting youth that I knew of at the time.” 

Homeless people 18 to 24 may still only find themselves eligible for permanent-housing vouchers once they enter the back of a long queue at an adult shelter, leaving behind other resources, like counseling and mental-health support, that are available to youth. 

There are also safety risks for youth in adult shelters, most severely for LGBTQ+ youth, Hernandez said. Last year, as part of his work on the Youth Action Board, he helped compile data that estimated nearly one third of homeless young adults in the city identify as LGBTQ+. A 2015 national study said that 75% of transgender homeless youth report physical, emotional or sexual abuse in their lives. 

“Youth shelters, for me, are more family-oriented,” Hernandez said. “They’re more welcoming and able to provide one-on-one attention. It’s not as crowded as an adult shelter, [where] it’s difficult to house a person because they’re trying to get everyone a voucher.”

The city does not record data on how frequently youth return to shelters after rapid rehousing programs. Advocates for Children of New York released a report last fall which counted 104,000 homeless students in city public schools in the 2021-22 academic year. The number has fallen below 100,000 only once since 2015.

Adults: The luck of the draw 

After he lost the New Jersey apartment, Hernandez returned to the city’s shelter system as an adult, at age 21. This time, he reapplied for housing with his girlfriend, who would soon become the mother of his child. They stayed at the Pitkin Hotel, a shelter for couples and adults in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood.

Their new status as a couple expecting a child made them eligible for “CityFHEPS” housing vouchers, from the city’s family homelessness & eviction prevention supplement program. After the birth of their son, they were housed again in New Jersey through a special one-time assistance voucher. But three months later, the apartment burned down after an electrical fire in a neighbor’s apartment. 

Then he ran into another problem entrenched in the system: For families who are housed out of state, support is hard to come by. “It can be very difficult to access assistance after you are placed — particularly if you are placed outside of New York City,” the Coalition for the Homeless warns on its website.

“When I called for help in Jersey, they couldn’t do anything. They told me to go back to New York,” Hernandez said. 

The average length of time people spend in city shelters is increasing. According to the Department of Homeless Services report, during the 2022 fiscal year the average amount of time was 509 days for single adults, up 5% from 2020, and 534 days for families with children, 17% longer than in 2020. 

Escape from homelessness, and emergence as a leader

Going back to New York also meant going back to a homeless shelter, this time with a young child, and starting another 90-day wait.

Hernandez began work as a peer navigator at Sheltering Arms in Queens. He started to realize that he had experience that could be valuable to other youth in his position. 

“I’ve been affected, having several mental-health diagnoses that I didn’t have before because I went through being homeless,” he said. “We try to create safe spaces for youth to be vulnerable.”

For once, his timing was good. When he was 24, he secured a federal emergency housing voucher, valid for 10 years, that helped him nail down his current apartment, in Rego Park in Queens. He got the voucher, which is not available to people over 25, with help from the Sheltering Arms shelter where he was a peer advocate.

“I’m still friends with some of the youth I was in the transitional program with,” Hernandez said. When he became a peer advocate, he said, his friendships grew deeper, as he was able to “support them to get housing, setting goals and helping with their needs without telling them what to do. Just listening to what they needed to be successful.”

New York City will help homeless people resettle to New Jersey where they can no longer access other much-needed assistance. 

But last fall, both the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Housing Authority announced that they would no longer accept referrals for this type of voucher in New York, because the waiting list had gotten too long. 

Hernandez is no longer with his previous girlfriend, but keeps his son close in his life through financial support and joint custody, and spends time with him at zoos and on field trips. His son just began kindergarten in Tarrytown.

He has a new partner, Juliana Lebron, who he has been dating for almost two years. Lebron, who has a six-year-old son of her own, lives in the J.P. Mitchel Houses in Mott Haven near the Bronx’s southern tip and is a delivery-truck driver for Amazon. 

“We met at a very difficult time in our lives, as we both have children,” said Lebron. “Our kids have been inseparable ever since. Not a lot of people are able to find a partner who cares for their child, and he treats my son just like his own, and for that I’m forever grateful.”

Lebron said that she’s proud of Hernandez’s dedication to and work ethic for homeless youth. 

“When you’re in a shelter and in a home with other people, it’s very hard to go from that to on your own — it’s a big adjustment,” she said. “Even through his struggles, he really fights through.” 

Now Hernandez is a key voice in trying to change policies to improve housing programs for young people. His advocacy work with the Coalition of Homeless Youth includes roundtable discussions between the City administration and young people with firsthand experience of homelessness. He also pushed the City to end the 90-day rule. 

He believes youth shelters can provide more one-on-one assistance and mental health resources and that the rules for housing eligibility should not give youths an incentive to leave those resources behind. 

Hernandez is also an advocate for host-home programs that provide safe living spaces to LGBTQ+ youth and other street outreach programs that provide crisis care. He said his current role as a peer navigator is “a stepping stone to the next destination,” and that his goal is to become a consultant for other youth action boards across the state. He is currently working toward a teaching certificate in transcendental meditation.

“I believe that we need better access to more resources in our community holistically. Not just therapists and psychiatrists, but bringing awareness to mindfulness stuff and meditation,” Hernandez said. “I want to continue to work with the larger community to support solutions that help fix our systems where youth are experiencing homelessness so they are actually heard and respected.” 

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