Glen Irvine was out of work and short on cash when he set up on Gladstone Avenue with a cup to collect change — but within minutes he said he was handed a $65 panhandling ticket.
"The people that are panning for money need the money," he said. "They can't afford to pay the ticket cause they're just panning for change."
Irvine said that many in his situation "don't know our legal rights." He credits the Ticket Defence Program, run out of the University of Ottawa law school, for helping him navigate the judicial system.
"I'm going to fight it," he said.
Lawyers and law students involved in the program set up in Minto Park on Elgin Street Thursday afternoon to offer free legal representation to fight tickets for a range of offences, including panhandling near a taxi stand, trespassing and public intoxication.
"Folks don't even know that it's a possibility to fight them or think there's no point in fighting the tickets because they perceive the system as set up or geared against them," said University of Ottawa law professor Suzanne Bouclin, who is also the program coordinator.
She explained that the program is like a mobile law clinic, providing legal advice at shelters and other community service centres.
Members of the program will either act on behalf of the client or help them navigate the legal system, which can be confusing and intimidating, so that they can represent themselves, she said.
Law relies on 'social profiling'
Bouclin argued the province's Safe Street Act "punishes people for being poor." The act defines aggressive panhandling as soliciting money at a taxi stand, ATM or public washroom.
"It punishes people for generating income in one of the few ways that they are capable to do so at this point in their lives," she said.
"You're not allowed to generate money and if you try to we're going to actually make you pay more money. It's kind of circular and non-sensical."
Last December, former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant called on the province to repeal the "rotten" Safe Streets Act, arguing it criminalized the poor.
Bouclin also said the law functions as a sort of "social profiling" as it regulates behaviour based on status.
"People get ticketed because they are homeless or they look homeless, they're street involved or they look street involved — rather than the act that they're engaging in," she said.
The Ottawa Police Service did not reply to CBC Ottawa's request for an interview on Thursday.