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Man hit by train in Tampa helped by program for homeless

Luis Alberto Romo, 71, was homeless before Hillsborough Deputy Steven Donaldson got him off the streets about a year ago.

Courtesy of Steven Donaldson

Luis Alberto Romo, 71, was homeless before Hillsborough Deputy Steven Donaldson got him off the streets about a year ago.

TAMPA — The elderly man lived behind gas cans, shopping carts and stacks of tires.

He lay on a faded Mickey Mouse comforter, next to a small bucket of water he'd use to wash himself.

When a Hillsborough deputy found Luis Alberto Romo, then 70, at an abandoned auto repair business about a year ago, the deputy was disgusted by the smell of urine and piles of trash.

Deputy Steven Donaldson soon returned to tell Romo he had a home. With the help of Adult Protective Services, the deputy found a room at an assisted living facility for Romo.

Romo smiled, his grin revealing toothless gaps. Then he held his face in his palm and quietly said: "You're my angel from God."

Deputy Steve Donaldson captured the exchange on video about a year ago. It may be the last known recorded image of Romo, the scrawny, sometimes-homeless man who, despite his living conditions, insisted he was "a very happy person."

He was hit by a train near Busch Boulevard and Florida Avenue on Tuesday.

Authorities are investigating. They say witnesses told police Romo had crossed the tracks and then doubled back just as the train was coming.

Over the past year, Donaldson would check on Romo, who had moved into Bay Gardens Retirement Village in the University area. It was part of the deputy's job as the founder (and then-sole member) of the Sheriff's Office's homeless initiative.

Though it appeared Romo had some cognitive issues, Donaldson said, the elderly man wasn't considered "endangered" — he could come and go from Bay Gardens as he pleased. Still, he had trouble answering questions and describing his past.

At some point, Romo left Bay Gardens. He ended up in St. Petersburg, where a nun from Catholic Charities noticed him and took him to the charity's shelter.

In February, the nun called the Wirick, a St. Petersburg adult living facility that offers mental health services, and Romo moved there. But about an hour after he arrived, he walked outside and broke a car window.

Romo went to jail, where he remained until last week, when he was released back to the Wirick.

He went missing overnight Sunday. Its employees filed a missing person report Tuesday morning.

By 9:54 a.m., it was too late.

Donaldson thinks it was Romo's "poor judgment" and a propensity for wandering that had him walking along the tracks.

"I'm not a professional in the field, but it appeared he suffered from some moderate mental disorder," Donaldson said.

According to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office and St. Petersburg Police, Romo had a history of schizophrenia.

He first attracted law enforcement attention a couple of years ago with charges typical of the homeless: petty theft, trespassing and loitering.

But he didn't have a history of alcohol or drug abuse — nor charges for violent crimes, according to state records.

Last month, Donaldson wrote about Romo on his blog, "Help Cops Help Us."

If I've proven anything in the last year it's this: not every homeless person wants to be homeless and when offered legitimate assistance to get off the streets most accept, like Luis did.

"I try not to get too wrapped up in these cases, but you can't help when it's a 70-year-old man who's crying and calling you 'an angel of God,' " Donaldson said. "But I'm only human. I'm sad, absolutely."

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

For more information

Read more about the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's homeless initiative at helpcopshelpus.org.

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For information

Read more about the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's homeless initiative at helpcopshelpus.org.

Man hit by train in Tampa helped by program for homeless 04/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012 12:25am]
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