Michael “Mike” Zint, an outspoken activist whose “Poor Tour” around Berkeley thrust the plight of homeless people in city officials’ faces, died Friday. He was 53.
Zint organized countless protests and homeless camps in Berkeley after arriving in the city around 2014, fresh from the Occupy movement in San Francisco. He camped out in front of Staples and the downtown Berkeley post office for more than a year, protesting the U.S. Postal Service’s contract with the office supply store and its threatened sale of the local branch.
He led a group of unhoused activists in what he called a “Poor Tour” around the city, demanding changes to Berkeley’s homelessness policies. The group set up on the lawn of Old City Hall, in the park across from Berkeley High, and at other sites, often getting kicked out by police only to reestablish somewhere even more visible the next day.
Zint’s legacy can be seen in the numerous tents stretched, to this day, along the BART tracks on Adeline Street, the Poor Tour’s final stop.
Zint was steadfast in his belief that society should support poor and homeless people in their quest for self-determination, and he often used provocative tactics to try to achieve his vision. He doused the steps to Berkeley city offices in blood-like red paint and led other Occupy organizers in “mooning the Fed” in San Francisco. He delighted in making the powerful squirm.
Friends say Zint built a close-knit “chosen family” in Berkeley, and many of its members, along with his sister Pam Winton, were with him at San Leandro Hospital when he died.
“Mike was a natural leader,” said Sarah Menefee, his close friend and co-founder of “First They Came for the Homeless,” their name for their unhoused activist group. “He’s also a master communicator. He listened to people.”
Zint loved animals and people, according to friends, who said he welcomed those who were down-and-out into his camps when they needed support.
“I could give you a lot of instances of people that came out of the night on death’s door and into the community. They got people back in touch with their families,” Menefee said.
Zint was born in San Diego, but moved frequently as a child — from Virginia Beach to Okinawa, Japan — because his father was in the Navy.
“We were just best friends growing up, because we were so close in age,” said Winton, who was two years Zint’s senior. Two younger brothers came later.
“Back then we were free-range kids — that was allowed,” Winton said.
The siblings were an adventurous and curious pair, riding their bikes everywhere, building forts at construction sites, snorkeling, fishing and finding animals in whatever body of water was closest to their home at the time. They would keep the grasshoppers and guppies they discovered, trying, usually unsuccessfully, to bring them into the house.
“When we lived in Pennsylvania we lived on a farm,” Winton said. “This is when Michael and I were little. We would do basically the same thing. When barn cats caught mice we would take them away to save them. We put the mice on Tonka trucks and put their paws on the steering wheels.”
Winton said she used to crawl into bed with her brother when scary thunderstorms hit.
“We were always together,” she said.
As a young adult, Zint was a “yoyo kid,” coming and going from his parents’ house. Caring for animals remained a theme, though, and Winton remembered Henry, the crow Zint raised from its infancy, the baby possums that would hiss constantly and Elmo the lovebird. Friends and family said he worked in pet stores and had jobs making or maintaining aquariums.
Friends say Zint was married in the past, and he had two daughters and grandchildren. One of those daughters, Crystie, shared memories of her father on Facebook.
“You allowing me to touch animals like a tiny lobster and being kissed on my hand by the kissy fish at the aquarium when I was little. The love I have for sharks, and animals came from you,” she wrote. “My looks came from you…My intelligence I got from you…I’ll miss your random messages and funny pictures you sent. I’ll miss talking to you. It still doesn’t feel real.”
Winton, who joined the Navy herself after high school and lived overseas, said she lost touch with her brother for years. She had been very disturbed to learn later that he’d become homeless.
Friends said Zint was homeless for some time in Humboldt, then in Golden Gate Park, right before he joined the Occupy movement in the streets of San Francisco. That’s where he met Menefee, and the pair founded First They Came for the Homeless there.
Zint took the lessons he learned from Occupy about organizing and street survival to his post office protest in Berkeley. And to the 50-person “Liberty City” encampment on the lawn of Old City Hall.
In speeches and interviews, Zint maintained that both sites belonged to the people, telling Berkeleyside, “We own this property. It’s public property.”
In 2016, he turned his focus more specifically to Berkeley’s homelessness services and policies, gathering protesters on the sidewalk outside The Hub, the city’s coordinated entry system. Even then, he was advocating strongly for a sanctioned encampment in Berkeley, where homeless people could be left alone to govern themselves. (He told Berkeleyside, “We don’t need care. We need to care for ourselves.”) The city is just now pursuing such a site.
Zint and his allies came up with a strict list of rules for their encampments, banning drug use and loud noise, in hopes of demonstrating that homeless people can take care of themselves and create an environment where people can get, and stay, sober.
Friends say Zint researched and knew local regulations, often trying to “push the envelope” without breaking the law.
“He took his actions really seriously,” said Barbara Brust, an advocate for the unhoused and a friend of Zint’s. “He tenaciously would not let go of the cause. He was brilliant when it came to strategy. I was just going and yelling at the City Council, while he was in the trenches. Absolutely I learned from him.”
Zint was not on friendly terms with city officials and police. When members of First They Came for the Homeless sued the city, alleging First Amendment violations and illegal seizure of their property (they lost the case), Zint testified that he wanted the city to lose money.
“My goal was to break their budget,” to show city leaders they were “playing homeless whack-a-mole,” he said.
Winton said that when she got back in touch with Zint a few years ago, the siblings learned they disagreed on almost everything, not least politics. But they enjoyed debating through Facebook messages, with Zint regularly sending paragraphs-long missives, she said. Zint liked to write everything from poems to persuasive essays, and was prolific on social media, keeping logs of First They Came for the Homeless’ trials and tribulations.
Menefee shared what she said was a poem Zint wrote in his last days: “The richest stand on the backs of the poorest/When the poorest can no longer support them, the rich fall/Money cannot buy intelligence.”
The city found housing for Zint during his last years, in East Oakland. There he had a beloved caretaker helping him with health issues, and pet lizards. He and friends criticized the housing circumstances, though, saying he was isolated from his community and that conditions there exacerbated his health problems.
Winton said the doctor told her Zint had COPD. She and his friends said he had been sick for years.
Winton flew to Berkeley immediately upon learning that her brother was in the hospital, and was by his side, along with his closest friends, when he died. She said it’s been eye-opening to see the community he established in Berkeley.
“My family defines success as going to college and making a lot of money,” she said. Zint “went to the school of hard knocks. But in the end he’s probably made more of an impact than the rest of us kids.”