House advances bill shielding personal information in homeless databases
Image via Richard Tanton/Flickr.

The bill is one of a number proposed this Session that seeks to stop names and other personal information from becoming public.

Personal data collected during homeless counts will be exempt from Florida’s broad public record laws, according to a bill that was rolled over Friday for final passage in the House.

Republican Rep. Fiona McFarland of Sarasota filed the bill (HB 699) that makes it so any personal information gathered for a federal database on the homeless will not become a public record. McFarland asked to substitute her bill for a similar Senate version (SB 934), which Sen. Joe Gruters sponsored and the Senate adopted on Feb. 10.

McFarland said the time has come for this exemption to Florida’s broad Sunshine Law, particularly since the last two years have meant unstable living situations for many people.

“When a person engages with homeless services, whether they spend a night in a shelter or are a victim of domestic violence, their information is entered into a federal database called the Homeless Management Information System,” she explained. “This creates a public record exemption to make it so that homeless information remains private and in the hands of people who need to use it.”

McFarland said she doesn’t want sensitive information coming out that might come back to haunt someone who really needed the help at the time, or keep someone from seeking help because of the possibility of being exposed.

“The last thing we would want to do is have their information become a public record that would somehow harm them when they seek future employment or some other area of their life,” she said.

Open-government advocates said they were not as concerned about this public records exemption as compared to some others. Legislation (SB 520) that would exempt information about candidates applying to become presidents of the state’s universities was the chief concern among public records advocates this Session.

Friday, the House approved that presidential search bill, and the measure will next head to the Governor’s desk. The bill finally succeeded after nearly 10 years of attempts at pushing for the exemption to the Sunshine Law.

Many exemptions sought during this Session have come out of concern about exposing personal information that could then be used for identity theft, said Virginia Hamrick. Hamrick is a staff attorney for the First Amendment Foundation, an open government advocacy organization based in Tallahassee.

This Session has seen exemptions sought for information in people in crash reports, victims of sexual harassment and people present at state executions.

The exemption for homeless individuals that was prepared for passage Friday meets the Florida Constitution’s requirement for an exemption, Hamrick said.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


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