Homeless coupele must leave mountain tree home

Tuesday September 17, 2002

BRISBANE — The couple’s driveway is a steep, narrow trail that winds through a sun-drenched landscape of hardy California scrub. Their front steps are rocky footholds in the earth. Their living room is nestled within the shady embrace of a sprawling oak tree. 

For a dozen years, Besh Serdahely and Thelma Caballero have lived in a pair of elaborate huts in a park on San Bruno Mountain, in a canyon flush with ferns. San Francisco Bay glimmers in the distance through leaves that buffer a breeze scented with hummingbird sage. The stillness is punctuated by birdsongs and the faraway hum of Silicon Valley’s commuters. 

But the couple may soon lose their roost. San Mateo County officials recently stapled a 30-day eviction notice to the tree, and the case will go to a judge if they’re not gone by Sept. 26. 

“Here it is peaceful,” said Caballero, shielded from the sun by a straw hat, a cream-colored man’s shirt, surplus Army pants and worn work gloves. “There are too many people in the city.” 

The hideout is just 10 miles south of San Francisco, where thousands of people without homes compete nightly for shelter, many ending up in doorways, beneath bridges and along railroad tracks. 

Serdahely and Caballero lived in the city until another hermit offered them the home he had begun to craft with discarded lumber and corrugated plastic amid the roots and branches of the 300-year-old oak. 

Authorities have known of the couple’s tree-squatting for years. They moved to evict them after a recent review of property lines revealed that the hideaway is on land owned by the county rather than the state, Deputy County Manager Mary McMillan said. 

Because of health and safety concerns, county law prohibits anyone from living in a park — especially one teeming with rare and endangered plants and insects such as the San Francisco Wallflower and the Mission Blue Butterfly. 

Until the county comes for them, the couple is staying put, content to compost their waste in their open-air outhouse and use water from a nearby spring. 

Caballero, a former housekeeper from Honduras who thinks she’s in her 40s, and Serdahely, 58, a former laborer, said they met at a San Francisco soup kitchen in the late 1980s and got married at City Hall. 

Caballero, who has schizophrenia, and Serdahely, who struggles with alcoholism, lucked into the mountain hideaway through a circle of friends they met along the railroad tracks just south of town. The original owner was moving in with a schoolteacher, and was looking for the right people to inherit the spot.