When he first began as chief operating officer of the nonprofit Care for the Homeless in 2016, Ronald Lawson thought that if he worked hard every day, he “would be helping our organization go out of business.”
It hasn’t exactly turned out that way, as his organization’s operations have expanded considerably since then. Its budget of $35 million is almost double what it was when he started.
Care for the Homeless runs 26 health care centers in New York City, as well as two shelters for women—a 200-bed facility in the Bronx and one in Manhattan with 120 beds. Some 8,000 to 10,000 individuals who are homeless or unstably housed use its services annually.
Lawson is overseeing the construction of three new shelters and six new health centers.
To better understand the scope of the challenge, New York City’s homeless population, if ranked as a city, would stand just behind Utica as the 11th largest in New York state.
Despite the daunting task ahead, Lawson, 68, says he plans to dedicate the rest of his working life to the cause. He said he’s not sure that homelessness in New York City will disappear in his lifetime, but he’s confident that he and his co-workers at Care for the Homeless “are a team of concerned, committed folks trying to address this problem.”
The biggest way they do that is by delivering quality health care. Foot problems are a consistent bane to their clients, so podiatry services are offered. Dental services are also offered at two of the health centers run by Care for the Homeless.
The organization’s philosophy, espoused by CEO George Nashak, is that those they serve receive health care equal or superior to the rest of New York City’s residents.
The reason is simple. Once the homeless receive such care and are stabilized, “it’s easier to get them placed” into permanent housing, Lawson said.
Care for the Homeless has placed 1,200 women who were homeless into permanent housing over the past 11 or 12 years, he said.
Lawson was one of seven people honored last month by his alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., with the Sanctae Crucis Award for their extraordinary service and leadership in critical fields during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the highest non-degree accolade the Jesuit college bestows on alumni.
“I was quite surprised and humbled,” Lawson said. “A lot of very highly regarded alumni received it.”
He and his wife, Nina Klyvert-Lawson, are active parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem, where he is a parish trustee and chair of the finance committee. They have an adult daughter, Bailey.
Before he switched to the nonprofit world, Lawson spent the early part of his career employed at well-known Wall Street firms.
After a layoff in the early 1990s, he fully expected to be back to work in short order. When that was not the case, he was unprepared to weather the personal downturn. He hadn’t saved while times were good. He assumed that his work experience and degrees from Holy Cross and Carnegie Mellon University would help him land on his feet.
As weeks turned into months, he was forced to put almost everything he owned into storage and move into a roach-infested apartment with the friend of a friend.
“I know what it’s like to lose everything you own,” he said.
He was fortunate to have good friends who helped him eventually get back on his feet. A pastor of a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, where he was living at the time, also gave him a piece of sage advice that Lawson took to heart: “Hard times don’t last always.”
When Lawson’s life was back in order, he told his friends that he “could never repay them for what they did for me.”
They all told him to pay their assistance forward to someone else.“That’s what I do,” he said. “It falls right into the Jesuit tradition of being men and women for others.”