‘Brilliant strategist’: Homeless rights activist Mike Zint dies

Sarah Menefee/Courtesy

Renowned homeless rights activist Mike Zint died at noon Feb. 14 after a lengthy battle with emphysema.

Zint, founder of the advocacy group First They Came for the Homeless, was well known for his reasoned, thoughtful activism campaigns that sought to increase awareness about the issues that homeless individuals face in the city. One of his more notable protests included painting the steps of Berkeley City Hall red, which was later washed away with water, causing the steps to appear to bleed.

Barbara Brust, founder of grassroots community group Consider the Homeless! and Zint’s longtime colleague, called Zint a “brilliant strategist.”

“He was funny as hell, sharp as a whip, smart as all get go,” Brust said. “He loved doing things that we could snicker about.”

In 2011, Zint participated in the Occupy San Francisco demonstration, which was based on the Occupy Wall Street movement. He would later relocate to Berkeley, where he camped out in front of the Berkeley post office for about 17 months to protest its sale to real estate developers. An avid botanist, Zint also planted a garden outside the post office.

Zint was also instrumental in organizing the Poor Tour, a series of encampments throughout the city of Berkeley that were repeatedly disbanded in 2016. The tour eventually settled in what became the Here There encampment, to which Zint ascribed a set of rules intended to empower its inhabitants. For example, residents are required to keep the area clean, and drug and alcohol usage is banned.

Sarah Menefee, co-founder of First They Came for the Homeless, said in an email that Zint was “a master revolutionary in the very best sense of the word.”

“He changed how homeless people are seen and treated; fiercely fought for their self-determination and right to exist and shelter themselves, if the government wouldn’t, and demanded that the government fulfil its responsibility to all,” Menefee said in an email.

Zint spread awareness about homelessness in a variety of ways, including setting up tents for police to enter and dismantle.

Zint was known for his dedication to the cause, at times prioritizing others above himself. Activist Guy “Mike” Lee, who collaborated with Zint on several campaigns, noted that Zint “cared about the welfare of other people more than he did himself.”

“I saw him a lot of times eating last, letting guys go eat,” Lee said. “A lot of times I’d just drop a box of food in his lap with a fork saying ‘Here, you’re welcome, goodbye.’ That’s the only way I could get him to eat.”

Brust said Zint, a longtime amphibian enthusiast, worked on fixing aquariums for MTV many years ago. The glue used to fix those aquariums, however, allegedly contributed to his deteriorating lungs. As his health worsened, Zint often found solace in his bearded dragons, which he considered “his kids,” according to Brust.

James Cartmill, an activist who worked with Zint, said although Zint’s passing was hard to process for many who knew him, Zint is “in a better place.”

“Just remember us, remember what we stood for and the reasons why we fought and continue to fight for those reasons,” Cartmill said. “That’s what Mike would want — for us to continue to build a better community.”

Contact Revati Thatte at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.