Woman takes over Belmont corner with signs

August 2, 2010 5:51:47 PM PDT
A street corner protest by a peninsula woman may be coming to an end. Police in Belmont told her she has until the end of the day Monday to move her 40-foot encampment and all the signs that come with it.

Estrella Benavides sits on her corner 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and says the First Amendment gives her and her display the right to be there. Police say that city ordinance gives them the right to kick her out.

Sometimes she dances to the beat of her own drummer. Other times, she sits silently, writing her thoughts on "Volume 24" of her manifesto. More pronounced, are her messages, scribbled mostly incoherently on signs and blankets, stretched 40 feet along the sidewalk at Belmont's busiest intersection.

Asked what her main message is, she replies, "Fight for your rights and freedom and believe in God."

Years ago, Benavides used her two homes in San Mateo and Belmont, and even her car, as her canvas. They were the same references to God, witchcraft and government conspiracies. Neighbors complained. She was in and out of court. Her homes were eventually foreclosed.

Last year, Benavides began displaying her signs at the intersection of El Camino Real and Ralston. She soon became a town fixture.

"I mean, most towns have got characters in them that they put up with," Belmont resident Tom Donaly says laughingly.

One month ago, the 50-year-old became homeless and began sleeping in her ever-growing sidewalk encampment. That is when her troubles began.

"The city told me to move and I am refusing," she told ABC7.

Belmont police told her last week she would have to move her 40-foot display by the end of Monday.

"Mrs. Benavides is violating our city code regarding encroachments in public right of way," Lt. Pat Halleran explained.

Benavides showed ABC7 her sleeping quarters, her supply of food, and other necessities. The nearby gas station allows her to clean up every morning in the restroom. Benavides says her street display is part of her First Amendment rights.

"I am believing in God. I am believing the people of the United States, that they will stand for their rights," she says.

Police say they and the county mental health program have offered Benavides housing and medical assistance, but she has refused. Police also say they want to resolve the issue amicably, but they could also prosecute her for a misdemeanor.

In the meantime, police are consulting the city attorney's office so for the moment, there to be a standoff.


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