A recent 60 Minutes piece on homeless families in Central Florida living in their cars generated lots of buzz nationally.
The compelling piece, which ran Nov. 27, explored the lives of two teens living with their father, an unemployed carpenter, in their truck in Seminole County.
The day after it ran, dozens of columnists, blogs, radio stations and newspaper websites seized on a stunning statistic — that Florida is "home to one third of America's homeless families." The number appeared on the 60 Minutes' website in an introduction to the transcript of the show.
The problem is that it's not quite right.
Florida is home to one-third of all homeless families who have no shelter at all — people living in their cars, under bridges, in parks. Florida is home to 10 percent of all homeless families nationwide.
A spokesman for 60 Minutes pointed out that the information was right in the actual broadcast, in which correspondent Scott Pelley said "of all the families without shelter in America, one-third are in Florida."
On Tuesday, a day after the St. Petersburg Times notified 60 Minutes of the mistake on its website, the introductory paragraph had been corrected.
But by then, the incorrect information had made its way into numerous stories that cited the original broadcast, typically in the first couple of paragraphs.
"Arielle is 15; her brother is 13. For the past five months, they've been living in a truck with their father, Tom. He is an out-of-work carpenter in Florida, where one-third of America's homeless families live." That was Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Connie Schultz.
"There are Florida charities, some mentioned in the 60 Minutes story, working to help the third of homeless families in America who live in that state." So said the New York Times.
A spokesman for 60 Minutes said the news show got the information about families living without shelter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Each year, HUD collects data on homelessness from cities and counties around the country.
"It's a point-in-time snapshot performed by volunteers," said Brian E. Sullivan of HUD. "It's one day, the third week in January."
According to the latest HUD data from 2010, Florida had 5,143 families who were homeless without shelter in 2010 — which is about one third of the 17,141 similar households nationwide. The total number of homeless families in Florida — sheltered and unsheltered — was 8,017, or about 10 percent of the 79,446 households nationwide.
What the information shows is that Florida has a serious problem sheltering homeless families. Only 35 percent of homeless families found emergency shelter or transitional housing that year.
Said another way, about 65 percent of the families counted in January 2010 here in Florida had no shelter at all.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.