'Hey brother, could you spare a quarter?' A Hamilton panhandler fights the law

Perry has hundreds of tickets to his name, given over a decade or so. He owes north of $20,000 in fines before he could ever get a driver’s licence or his own housing again. Now, he’s in court to fight them.

'In one hand I’m asking for change and in the other I’m getting a ticket': Dwight Perry

Dwight Perry had collected $9 from passersby by early afternoon on a recent weekday. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The people walking by, the ones with coins jangling in their pockets, know him by name.

They greet the downtown Hamilton fixture with a smile, and a "Hey, Dwight," as he sits on a warm summer afternoon on a sidewalk on King Street East.

A red Tim Hortons cup on the ground in front of him hints at why he's there.

"Hey brother, could you spare a quarter?" he asks.

A guy walking by drops a toonie in his cup. He's made $9 so far this day.

"See?" he says. "I don't see anything wrong with asking the gentleman coming by if he could spare a quarter."

"Thank you very much," he says to his donor. "Now, if a police officer seen me doin' that I would have got a ticket."

Perry's long hair is gone, recently chopped after a police officer took him for a haircut. But his mustache remains, along with a gravely voice and light-hearted friendliness that endears him to people who might not otherwise share the wealth.

'In one hand I'm asking for change and in the other I'm getting a ticket'

Though this afternoon's interaction escaped police notice, Perry's routine garners him unwanted attention.

"I got a lot of tickets, a lot of tickets. It seems to be goin' up and up and up," he said.

"I put a hat or a cup out and in one hand I'm asking for change and in the other I'm getting a ticket."

Dwight Perry is a familiar face in downtown Hamilton. He has more than $20,000 in unpaid panhandling ticket fines. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Perry has hundreds of tickets to his name, given over a decade or so. He owes north of $20,000 in fines before he could ever get a driver's licence or his own housing again.

In the last year, he says, police have started giving him a version of a panhandling ticket that requires him to go to court. If he didn't show, he could have a trial date set without his knowledge and be tried — and possibly convicted and sentenced — even without being there. 

But Wednesday, he showed up at John Sopinka Courthouse in Hamilton and appeared with his lawyer, Peter Boushy, who is working on the case pro bono. 

Dwight Perry showed four more panhandling tickets he'd been given in the week after he testified in court last November. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Perry believes it's wrong to be ticketed for panhandling. For every dollar someone gives him, he runs the risk of getting a fine.

"I think there's something wrong with asking someone for a quarter and you give me a ticket for $65," he says. "It just don't balance out."

Now, he's in court to fight them.

'People who are just trying to survive and getting ticketed for it'

At the same time a legal clinic in Toronto has launched a constitutional challenge on the Ontario Safe Streets Act, a provincial law passed in 1999 that criminalizes things like squeegeeing car windows and "aggressive" panhandling.

They're calling for the government to scrap the bill.

"Basically it boils down to it's discriminatory and it's unfair," said Daniel Ciarabellini, the managing director of the Fair Change Community Legal Clinic.

"It has disproportionate impacts on certain protected groups, so for example, people who are mentally and physically disabled, because that population is disproportionately represented among the panhandling population."

In court Wednesday, Boushy postponed the hearing while the challenge proceeds. But he said Perry could fight his charges either way.

"There's something fundamentally offensive when the government spends an inordinate amount of money and resources on essentially picking on the poor," Boushy said. "Surely there's got to be something else we can do as a society to help people like Dwight get back on their feet."

The challenge has the support of former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, now a criminal defence lawyer, who he says he's seen damage wrought by the law.

"The indignity of it all is apparent when you see people who are just trying to survive and getting ticketed for it," he said.

Back in November, Perry was one of the downtown "regulars" brought in to testify in the trial of four Hamilton police officers charged and acquitted with faking tickets.

And now, his story may play a role in the legal challenge the Toronto clinic is mounting.

'It seems like it ain't gonna end'

Perry says he's worked a number of different jobs in his 60 years, from a weapon tech reservist in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry to a cab driver. He says he drove cabs for a while, worked at a factory as a press operator and was let go about 10 years ago.

He put his hat on the pavement one day after work while waiting for his brother, and says some people threw money in it. His new routine was born.

He says he's tried to look for jobs – a police officer took him to get glasses and to try to get working on his resume. He collects about $300 a month from Ontario's welfare allowance as a street allowance. He stays with a friend off and on.

He has a hard time justifying spending all that time looking for something to pay him minimum wage. "I guess that's for the younger generation," he says.

Boushy asked in Hamilton court Wednesday for a judge to adjourn Perry's matter until the outcome of the constitutional challenge is known.

Sometimes Perry holds out a hat; sometimes he uses a cup. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

And until then, Perry said he doesn't plan to stop asking for change. Even though he knows what will happen.

"It seems like it ain't gonna end," he said. "I'm just gonna keep getting 'em, and keep getting 'em."