Michael Raposa remembers the day state investigators showed up in his office and warned him that someone was using the identities of homeless people in his shelter to commit tax fraud.
The investigators wouldn't give him an exact victim count, or say how the names and Social Security numbers had leaked. They told him that, in one case, a homeless person had been paid to hand over his information.
The encounter left Raposa, who runs St. Petersburg's St. Vincent de Paul shelter, thinking about the massive countywide database that his and other charities help maintain. In it are hundreds of names, birth dates and Social Security numbers belonging to people who have stayed in Pinellas County shelters. Each year, the data is used in the county's homeless count. And because the agencies that oversee the count are subject to Florida's public records law, some of the data, with the exception of Social Security numbers and medical information, is public information that anyone can request.
This year, Raposa and other members of Pinellas' Homeless Leadership Board are pushing for legislation that would prevent the public from accessing the data collected by government agencies and charities on homeless people.
"It gets down to protection," he said. "Like we protect our children and our elderly, we need to protect our homeless."
Currently in draft form, the bill would create a public records exemption "for individual identifying information of a person who is homeless or at risk of homelessness." The bill's supporters said it is meant to protect people's names, dates of birth and other information that might be used to single out a person. Data on the homeless population could still be released in aggregate, they said.
"We don't mind saying that last night at our shelter we had 72 people, 50 of whom were men, but we don't want have to release a list of those names," Raposa said.
Identity theft is an enduring problem, according to advocates for the homeless, but it was not the impetus for the bill's creation.
Last spring, the Tampa Bay Times submitted a public records request for information about those who were counted in Pinellas' tally of the homeless. The request didn't ask for names or dates of birth, and the data that was eventually provided was so riddled with errors it was never published. But some members of the Homeless Leadership Board were surprised to learn that the information they'd assured clients was confidential was subject to public records law. They began lobbying lawmakers for a change.
"What we're trying to do is protect individuals," said Carlen Petersen, the board's chair. "Something like what they do with victims of domestic abuse."
The bill found a sponsor in state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Its path in the House is less clear.
It's also drawn the attention of the First Amendment Foundation, a government watchdog group. Jon Kaney Jr., a lawyer for the foundation, said that the bill's draft language is too broad and slim on justification.
By making the names of people who are not only homeless, but are also "at risk of homelessness" exempt, the measure could cover thousands of impoverished Floridians living on the edge. Identity theft is not an problem that is unique to homeless people, Kaney said.
"If we try to create a prophylaxis around all information that could be misused, we would not have open government anymore," he said.
Michael Barfield, an advocate for the homeless in Sarasota, said he's concerned that if the bill became law, it could cut him off from the public documents, mainly arrest reports, which he uses for research.
"Without access to public records identifying an individual's homeless status, we would not be able to find them, much less identify patterns of discrimination with respect to how they are treated," he wrote in an email.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.