Renato Moda, 53, speaking at a Milan soup kitchen, said he was a textile salesman who went broke after he lost his stores and his house shortly before his wife died, ANSA reported Friday.
Moda said he did not know how he was going to make money until he discovered a cellphone charger lying on the ground and sold it to a taxi driver for about $4.
"At that moment, my life changed," Moda said.
Moda said he has since been making money selling small items including cigarette lighters and small flashlights. He said he spends his time in coffee shops to avoid the cold and will sometimes spend weekends at a hotel if he makes enough cash.
Marco Marani, vice president of the Unica FILT-CGIL taxi drivers' union, blasted authorities for issuing Moda the fine for operating his small business without a license.
"Renato is trying to rebuild his life without stealing, he is a good person for a pleasant chat and is never intrusive," Marani said.
Union President Giovanni Maggiolo agreed, issuing sarcastic praise to the police.
"I congratulate the local police who completed this 'bright' operation," he said.