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Woman Who Died in SF Homeless Encampment Fire Was Mother of 3 and Had Been Evicted

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A man surrounded by debris draws the name 'Zarina' in block letters on a piece of paper.
Jesse Montgomery sits under an overpass in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood, etching a drawing of Zarina Pimshin's name, on Feb. 25, 2022. Pimshin was sleeping in an encampment here with Montgomery and others when a fire broke out last Wednesday morning, killing her. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

A San Francisco woman who was killed last week in a homeless encampment fire had been evicted more than three years earlier from her Richmond District apartment.

Zarina Pimshin, 40, has been identified by officials as the woman killed in a fire that broke out early Wednesday morning. The blaze also left three other people in critical condition as they sheltered under an Interstate 280 on-ramp in Glen Park while temperatures dropped into the 40s.

Pimshin was evicted from her home on 21st Avenue and Lake Street in August 2018 after failing to pay her rent, according to court records, which say she owed $2,452.80.

"As for the eviction ... Where did you plan I would be sleeping today?" Pimshin wrote in a Facebook post, shortly after records show she was notified that sheriff's deputies would soon come to remove her from the property.

Her former landlord declined to comment on details about the case, but confirmed that Pimshin was her tenant and that she had been evicted.

Pimshin's ex-husband, Nick Pimshin, told KQED they met in 2012, but divorced over a year before her eviction, and he had since fallen out of touch with her.

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Zarina leaves behind an 8-year-old daughter, who remains in the custody of Nick Pimshin, her father. She also leaves behind two sons, age 18 and 20.

When times were good, "she was really cheerful, and a fun person," Nick said, recalling how Zarina would try her best to make those around her laugh. Originally from Russia, she held a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science from Moscow State University, he said, and during their time together served as a project manager at the tech firm QuinStreet.

"The little one, her daughter, misses her so much," Nick said.

One of Pimshin's friends, Sergei Fyodorov, who also had lost touch with her in recent years, said she enjoyed dancing, was well read, and loved her three children tremendously.

"She was very kindhearted. Very genuine," Fyodorov said. "It's hard, because she had her whole life ahead of her. And she loved her kids."

But while she could "shine positive," Fyodorov said, Pimshin also struggled with dark moods, and he had advised her to seek psychiatric care. She had also once asked him for financial help, which he was unable to provide.

Around that time, Nick said, Zarina began using drugs heavily. "We were fighting hard to get her out of that addiction,” he said. "That's what she gave up her life for."

Just seven days after being served her eviction notice, Pimshin wrote a plea on her Facebook profile page seeking funds for housing: "By the way, sheriff services, where I, how I can request your services?" She tagged the post “#400McA,” which may have been an abbreviation for 400 McAllister St., the address of San Francisco Superior Court.

Fyodorov and her ex-husband both said they were uncertain whether she had ever found another place to live after her 2018 eviction.

Pimshin had only recently come to the Glen Park overpass site, and had slept for several days in a concrete chamber in the structure, according to other people living there.

The fire's cause is still under investigation, officials said.

The fire exploded out of control shortly after midnight in an area under the freeway that is largely overgrown. It was only after firefighters began battling the blaze that they learned there were people inside the overpass, officials said. San Francisco Fire Department video showed firefighters using ladders to climb into the overpass crawlspace. It took them about two hours to reach Pimshin and the three other people trapped inside.

A drawing of 3 hearts on a burned cement wall, that says: 'DON'T HOLD BACK. LIVE, LOVE, LAUGH. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.
Three hearts and a message are spray-painted on a burnt cement wall under an overpass in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood, in memory of Zarina Pimshin, who died in a fire that broke out at the site last week, (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Before Pimshin was identified by name, news of the death of an unhoused woman seeking shelter on a near-freezing night resonated across the state, a painful reminder of the hazards routinely faced by California's massive unhoused population. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement condemning the systemic failures that force people to sleep in dangerous conditions.

If society doesn't interrupt the patterns that lead to people staying homeless, "they're just quite literally going to die," Newsom told KQED on Wednesday, as he helped Caltrans officials dismantle an encampment in Redwood City. "You saw it just today — a death of someone in a fire under 280. There's no compassion in this. There's nothing just about people living in conditions like this. This is an abomination. This is unacceptable."

While California has an "ethical responsibility" to help people, he said, "people have to meet us halfway. And if they can't, we're going to do more to increase our efforts and outreach."

And to those who refuse services, "we recognize we have work to do on conservatorships," Newsom added, referring to the legal process in which a person or organization is given decision-making authority over another adult who is deemed incapable of making responsible decisions.

Newsom said he's about to announce a "new approach" to conservatorships that he called "novel."

Even as San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing tackles a backlog of 1,633 applicants who are eligible to receive housing, there were nearly 900 units of permanent supportive housing that remained vacant as of Feb. 22 due to bureaucratic hurdles, according to a recent San Francisco Public Press/ProPublica investigation.

Meanwhile, out-of-control fire incidents at homeless encampments in San Francisco have been rising, according to Fire Department figures cited by The San Francisco Chronicle. There were more than 700 encampment fires reported in both 2021 and 2020, up from 457 in 2019, records show.

"It’s devastating that people are living in conditions where they are up inside of a freeway to stay warm. The humanity of it is just heartbreaking," Lydia Bransten, executive director of The Gubbio Project, which provides daytime shelter to people at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in the Mission District, told KGO radio. "We all think here’s the problem, here’s the solution," she said. "But we are talking about thousands of people and we are talking about hundreds of beds."

Paul Durden, who had been sleeping at the site last week and was rescued after the fire started, said the city should be offering more services to unhoused people in need.

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"Maybe better housing for people that are struggling to try to get out of the cold, that are forced to go under the f------ freeway where it's dangerous to live if a fire happens," Durden said on Friday, while surveying the charred remains of the site. "Or just a better situation for people that are actually just trying to make it and not be a nuisance in the community, that don't have the resources like everyone else."

Durden remembered Pimshin as having “good positive vibes.”

"I just liked being around her. She was taken care of here and looked after," he said. "I tried to keep [her] safe. She said she felt safe here. And then this happened. Now I got to live with that."

Durden's friend, Jesse Montgomery, 42, was also living under the Glen Park freeway ramp, and said he had briefly known Pimshin in the days before her death.

"I dug this place out of nothing. It's my home," he said of the burnt-out encampment.

In the days leading up to the fire, the three of them had smoked meth together, at which point Pimshin had started behaving erratically, Montgomery said. After getting high, she would do "out-of-pocket stuff," he said, like mixing their beer with paint.

At that point, Montgomery said he asked her to leave the encampment, although he didn’t recall any bitterness in the exchange. She then returned a few days later, and he said he didn’t have the heart to kick her out again.

"It was getting cold," Montgomery remembered. "I wanted her to leave, I wanted to hate her, almost, but I couldn't. She's human."

When she returned, Pimshin climbed into the alcove and slept there for a few days straight, he said. Then the fire came.

Montgomery was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for smoke inhalation, at which point he was told of Pimshin’s death.

Montgomery and Durden said they want to commemorate the woman they only knew in her final days alive, and hope to craft a chrome heart sculpture and install it under the overpass in her honor.

For now, Montgomery has painted three red-and-white hearts, visible on the charred concrete pylons near where her body was discovered. Beneath them it says, "DON'T HOLD BACK. LIVE, LOVE, LAUGH. LIFE IS TOO SHORT."

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This post includes additional reporting from KQED's Kate Wolffe and The Associated Press.

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