Story by MARK SAAL • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — Two years and counting ...
Doug “Boy Scout” Harding is a 59-year-old formerly homeless man who spent decades hopping freight trains and living under bridges. Although he earned the nickname “Boy Scout” for his tendency to help other hobos in need, he also possessed a gritty survival skill set — like keeping a road flare in his back pocket because “It beats a knife every time in a fight.”
Two years ago, Harding hooked up with Weber Housing Authority and moved into an Ogden apartment under a federal program called Shelter Plus Care, designed for the chronically homeless with disabilities. Harding’s disability is related to substance abuse.
The Standard-Examiner has been following Harding, chronicling his transition.
Today, Harding has more or less settled into domestic life. About three months ago, still on the Shelter Plus Care program, he moved from an apartment complex near downtown to a quieter west Ogden duplex.
“This is a lot more laid back over here. You don’t have people coming to your door at 3 a.m.,” he said, referring to his homeless friends who would try to crash at his pad — a no-no for those in the housing program. “I haven’t made friends over here on purpose; everybody got into your business over on the east side.”
Harding’s place has a small, fenced-in side yard, and he says he looks forward to the summer, hanging out in the shade of a tree and barbecuing on a grill he’ll undoubtedly find in a dumpster somewhere as the weather gets warmer.
Laura Peters, special programs case manager at Weber Housing Authority, has been working with Harding for the last two years. She says she’s always had a soft spot in her heart for him.
“I’m very proud of the fact he’s been able to remain housed,” she said. “He’s been doing well.”
Peters does worry that Harding may be battling depression, but she believes it probably prompted by the fact that it’s winter, and he prefers to be outside. She said they’re now trying to get Harding health care through targeted adult Medicaid for homeless individuals.
Andi Beadles, executive director of Weber Housing Authority, says that two years in, Harding is still a rousing success story.
“I feel like he’s doing great, and we’ve seen him make great progress on the program,” she said.
Beadles said Harding still puts up all sorts of signs on his door — he’s been doing that for the last two years. The current one, she said, reads: “Unless you’re Weber Housing Authority, go away.”
On a recent winter weekday, Harding was livid over the fact someone had stolen a black Marine Corps flag he had hanging on a fence in his yard. Harding said if he were still homeless, he’d be sleeping with one eye open. Instead, he’s let down his guard.
“I’m getting too complacent,” he said. “I’ve lost my edge, I’m getting too comfortable.”
Harding said he doesn’t even carry a knife these days.
“I’ve been too trusting and — bam! — there goes my (expletive) flag,” he said. “Guess I’ll have to start keeping road flares in my back pocket again.”
The next step for Harding, according to Peters, will be for him to graduate from the more structured Shelter Plus Care program to a voucher program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He’s currently sitting at 58th on a voucher waiting list that has about 900 people on it.
That could happen later this year or next, and it would give Harding more freedom and responsibility for his own housing — although he wouldn’t pay more than 30 percent of his income toward rent, according to Peters.
Peters likes to think of Harding as “my little starfish,” referencing a popular motivational story about a man who sees a boy throwing starfish back into the ocean after a storm beaches tens of thousands of them. When the man points out that the boy can’t possibly save enough of them to make a difference, the boy simply throws another back into the ocean, saying: “It made a difference to that one.”
Peters says whenever she’s having a bad day, she thinks about Harding and how far he’s come. It always makes her smile.
“By god, we have too many failures in this job, too many times I go home and cry,” she said. “But with Doug I can think, ‘I saved that one. I saved that starfish.’”
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.