POLK COUNTY, Fla. — An elderly Winter Haven Navy veteran is fighting to stay in his historic home as the city takes action to condemn it.
The I-Team uncovered that the sad situation and others like it are playing out throughout Florida as our population grows older.
When we met 87-year-old Thomas Macy, it wasn’t his best day.
“I’ve been better,” he said as he greeted us in his dirt driveway.
Macy has been given multiple violations over seven years.
The city of Winter Haven recently cited him for 54 code violations and taped an emergency closure notice to his door.
This included electrical hazards, blocked exits and numerous maintenance issues.
According to the city, Macy was using his historic home as a boarding house, where at least 12 people lived.
Winter Haven Public Safety Director Charlie Bird said his inspectors encountered children living on the property.
“It’s deplorable conditions. Not just deplorable… very unsafe,” Bird said.
“I don’t know why they want to tear it down. Tear it down. A 125-year-old historic piece. Makes no sense,” Macy said.
While a tenant cleared debris, Macy gave us a tour of his property.
The lawn was littered with broken plastic dolls, rusty children’s bikes and other signs that kids had been playing there.
“The children who were here were spoiled rotten,” Macy said.
Dump-truck-loads of debris and junk cars have been removed, along with multiple stray animals.
There are tents set up on parts of the property.
Bird said his employees found people living in broken-down vehicles.
“We’ll be rebuilding that. We have lumber,” Macy said, pointing at a shed knocked down by Mother Nature years ago.
Inside, there's no sink in the home’s only bathroom.
Parts of the house are padlocked shut, ceilings are crumbling and portions of the floor are missing.
“What we’re trying to do is work with him so that we can keep people safe, and frankly, it’s a scary situation out there,” Bird said.
Bird said Macy’s code enforcement issues started in 2015 but have grown worse as he’s grown older.
He said his department gets frequent complaints from neighbors, who say strangers are wandering through their neighborhood and Macy’s property conditions attract rodents and mosquitoes.
“It’s tough because when you try to deal with someone like that who’s elderly, they don’t understand necessarily and they take it as an affront that you’re trying to take their freedoms away from them,” Bird said.
Some tenants have served as Macy’s caregivers, helping out around the property.
Others have taken advantage of him.
“He’s been like a daddy to me. He’s nice to everyone. He tries to give everyone a chance… like feed the homeless, clothe them, let them take a shower,” said Nicole Williams, who lives at that home.
Macy has often helped convicted felons get their right to vote restored and has campaigned for candidates since he was a young man.
He said he has twice visited the Oval Office, once when President Harry Truman was in office and again during the Clinton administration.
“If that man has $2 to his name, he’ll give you every dime of it and go without if that’s what it takes,” said tenant Laura Emmanuel. “He don’t have the money, just stuck back. He’s a retired veteran. He lost his wife. He’s on his own. I’m the closest thing he has to a caretaker, and I do it for free.”
Macy admits sometimes people take advantage of his kindness, but he said his Quaker upbringing has taught him to always help others.
Patty Suarez is Vice President of Marketing for the Senior Connection Center, a nonprofit organization connecting seniors and their families with community services.
“We hear different versions of this story all the time. None of us expects to age and get older. We’re in denial about it. And sometimes we can’t take care of ourselves the way we used to,” Suarez said. “We can’t take care of our homes the way we used to and we lose track of what we can and cannot do well.”
She said it’s often difficult to get someone to make the right decision at the right time.
“The emotional energy that goes into trying to either downsize or move is just tremendous. I’ve gone through it myself."
Ellen Buckley, a certified aging life care professional, said it’s important to plan ahead before a crisis arises.
“When you wait too late, it can really be tragic. And it can have a compounding effect of losing money, possibly incorporating more illnesses or injuries,” Buckley said.
“I couldn’t believe it. Just incredible to have that happen to me,” Macy said when we asked him about all the code enforcement violations.
Macy did admit some of the problems posed a potential danger to himself and others.
“This is all he’s got. If they take his house, it’s gonna take him,” Williams said.
The city ordered everyone but Macy to move out and police will arrest those who returned.
Unless he can quickly fix the violations, Macy will have to move too.
“We don’t want a fire to take place, and he’s unable to get out of that house,” Bird said.
The city is working with Macy’s son, who lives in another town, to come up with a solution.
Experts say you and your loved ones should begin planning for your future years before a crisis occurs.
As part of our The Price of Protection Series, we have encouraged individuals to prepare Power of Attorney and Health Care Surrogate documents, appointing someone you trust to help you make decisions if you are unable to do so in the future.
If you suspect an elderly person has been a victim of neglect, exploitation or abuse, you should call the Elder Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.
If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.