SAN MATEO — Estrella Benavides has become a familiar figure over the past several months at City Hall, where public hearings on her bizarrely painted Shoreview house have turned into something of a spectacle.

Brief accounts of her Cottage Grove Avenue home, which is covered in words evoking both God and a global conspiracy, have appeared in newspapers across the country in sections devoted to oddball stories.

Now, following a ruling last month by the City Council, Benavides has until April 19 to remove the display, which violates city codes limiting the size of residential signs, or face $50 a day in fines, up to a limit of $5,000. Benavides has said she will not pay.

But there has been no effort by San Mateo officials to address the underlying cause of Benavides' confrontation with the city — the mental anguish that has driven her to deface her home and believe that sinister forces are conspiring against her and abusing her 4-year-old son, whom she lost two years ago in a custody dispute.

Benavides could not be reached for this article, but she has insisted on several occasions that she is mentally sound. She believes that in spreading her message of a government conspiracy that employs mind-control and witchcraft, she is doing the work of "Jehovah," with whom she communicates. But mental health specialists who have been informed of Benavides' paranoid thoughts and behavior say there is no question that she requires psychological counseling. Dr. Ira Glick, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, and Pat Way, recent former president of the San Mateo County chapter of the National Association for the Mentally Ill, agreed it is critical for Benavides to seek help.

"The city should have (San Mateo County) mental health involved," said Way. "I would hope that the people from outreach and support would be trying to talk with her."

San Mateo City Manager Arne Croce maintains that the city's job is to enforce its codes and protect neighbors from a public nuisance and that providing mental health outreach to residents is outside the scope of its responsibility.

"That's not our role, and I think we'd be really treading on a bad place to do that," said Croce. "It's not the city's role to make any judgment about someone's mental condition. We're not going to go there."

Both Croce and City Councilman John Lee said it would not be appropriate for city officials to contact the San Mateo County Health Department, which has outreach teams that specialize in visiting people at their homes and performing psychological evaluations.

If Benavides does not pay her fines, the city will take her to court, Croce said.

Gail Bataille, the county's director of mental health services, said she had no knowledge of Benavides' situation, adding that whether county health officials have visited her home is confidential. Bataille said the case illustrates the difficulty of getting help for people who don't want to be treated.

"The issue is really under what circumstances can (the government) intervene in someone's rights," said Bataille.

The only way for adults in California to be treated against their will is if they are unable to provide themselves with food or shelter or if they are found to pose a danger to themselves or others, she said.

Benavides spent 72 hours in the psychiatric ward of a San Francisco hospital in 2005, at about the same time she lost custody of her youngest son, but she did not meet those criteria and was released.

Michael Haywood, a real estate consultant who has been trying to help Benavides sell two local properties, said his soft-spoken client is not dangerous but desperately needs support.

"I think it's time for someone to step up and say, 'Hey, we've got this issue, and we need to try and help this lady somehow,'" Haywood said.

Though Benavides, who was born in Nicaragua, never obtained any high-paying jobs after she moved to the Bay Area in 1997, she was a shrewd investor. With her two grown sons, she co-owns two homes in San Mateo and one in Belmont. 

But the nest egg she built over 20 years is threatening to fall apart. Haywood said he received multiple bids on Benavides' home in Belmont, but she pulled out of a deal after God told her the offers were too low. Haywood has since taken the properties off the market.

Meanwhile, Benavides has failed to make the last two property tax payments on all three homes and owes roughly

$19,300, according to county tax records. In addition, she could lose some of her possessions to her husband as a result of their divorce proceedings.

Haywood said he fears that Benavides, who has told him the deer in her backyard are spying on her and passers-by can download her thoughts, is incapable of rational decisions regarding the properties.

"She's just running herself right into the ground," Haywood said. "There's a lot of loose ends she's building up, and it's only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down."

Benavides has grown increasingly isolated from members of her family. Her two sons have struggled to find help for her, because she is unwilling to admit the need for it.

The eldest, who is 27, requested that he and his brother not be identified. He declined comment for this story, but he did confirm that the brothers asked a lawyer about acquiring some measure of control over their mother's finances.

They were told that applying to become her conservator, a public and potentially costly legal process, would be complicated by her divorce battle with her husband.

Glick warned that without treatment, a person in Benavides' condition is likely to worsen, while Bataille said "there are no easy answers" when someone turns down treatment.

"I just hope that she can get some help somewhere, I honestly do," Haywood said. "Person to person, I just hope she can make it through this time."

Staff writer Aaron Kinney can be reached at (650) 348-4302.