Personal data collected during homeless counts will be exempt from Florida’s broad public record laws, according to a bill Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Wednesday.
Republican Sen. Joe Gruters sponsored the bill (SB 934) that DeSantis signed into law and Republican Rep. Fiona McFarland of Sarasota filed the House companion (HB 699). The new law makes it so any personal information gathered for a federal database on the homeless will not become a public record.
McFarland made the case in committee that 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. The presidential search bill (SB 520), which will exempt the names of candidates for the top jobs at Florida’s public colleges and universities, was the most contentious among the public record exemptions filed this year. DeSantis signed it into law March 15, ending nearly 10 years of attempts at pushing through this 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.
The exemption for homeless individuals’ information meets the Florida Constitution’s requirement for an exemption, Hamrick told Florida Politics.
The law goes into effect July 1.