Legislature adopts bill that keeps homeless individuals’ personal info private despite federal database
Grover Robinson says the I-110 homeless camp needs to go. Image via Pensacola News Journal.

I-110 camp
The bill is one of a number proposed this Session that creates new exemptions in the state's broad Sunshine Law.

The House approved legislation Monday keeping homeless individuals’ information out of the public record if those individuals seek help at a homeless shelter.

Republican Rep. Fiona McFarland of Sarasota filed the bill (HB 699) that would add an exemption to Florida’s Sunshine Law.

McFarland substituted a similar Senate version sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters (SB 934) for her bill. The Senate bill was adopted Feb. 10, meaning the legislation now awaits the Governor’s signature.

McFarland said the time has come for this exemption to the public records law, considering the number of people who experienced instability during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just a single night in a shelter could mean one’s name, Social Security number and other identifying information are entered into the U.S. Division of Housing and Urban Development database. The census is crucial to allocating federal resources for alleviating homelessness, but the information shouldn’t be exposed, according to the bill’s aim.

“We should be doing everything we can to protect the information of homeless people, especially coming out of the last two years,” McFarland said. “There is no reason why anyone seeking help should have that information held against them in the future as they get their life back on track.”

Open-government advocates said they were not as concerned about this public records exemption compared to some others. Legislation (SB 520) that would exempt information about candidates applying to become presidents of the state’s universities emerged as the chief concern among public records advocates for this Session. That bill — proposed for nearly the last decade — also was approved and is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature.

This Session has seen exemptions sought for information on people in crash reports, victims of sexual harassment and people present at state executions. A lot of the bills arise out of concern about identity theft and harassment, said Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney at the First Amendment Foundation, an open government advocacy group in Tallahassee.

Creating an exemption for homeless people’s information did not strike the First Amendment Foundation as too concerning.

“We have to prioritize which ones (proposals) are really going to shut down public accountability and make it harder to know what governments are doing,” she 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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