The San Juan Daily Star
Ugly tale of migrants displacing veterans makes waves and then dissolves
By Corey Kilgannon
The story seemed tailor-made for opponents of outsiders.
“VETS KICKED OUT FOR MIGRANTS,” blared the front page of The New York Post, one of many outlets that last week carried the tale of homeless military veterans’ being expelled from their temporary hotel rooms north of New York City so that people coming from the Mexican border could stay there.
The sensational story grew out of claims by a veterans advocacy group and was immediately seized upon by local Republican elected officials.
Rep. Mike Lawler called the ousting of the vets a “debacle.” A state assemblyman, Brian Maher, went on Fox News to denounce the action and announced a bill that would prohibit the displacement of veterans in response to the “migrant crisis that has pushed them out.”
Problem was, the story was a sham.
It began unraveling when reporters could not locate any displaced veterans. It fell apart further when managers of the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh, New York, said they had no record of the veterans staying there.
And the story flopped for good Friday with an article in The Mid Hudson News that quoted a group of homeless men who said they had been recruited by the YIT Foundation, a veterans advocacy group, and its founder, Sharon Toney-Finch, who asked them to pose as the ousted veterans.
Their tale was a doozy. They told reporters from The Mid Hudson News and The Times Union of Albany that they had been approached at a homeless shelter in Poughkeepsie, New York, and then wined and dined before being propped up to the news media as ousted veterans. They added that they had been stiffed for the $200 payment they were promised for cooperating.
The Mid Hudson News’ work in debunking a highly charged nationwide tall tale drew praise for the importance of local coverage and underscored the paper’s motto: “We’re the news source where other reporters get their news.”
Its interviews with several homeless men Thursday night described an odyssey that began in a Poughkeepsie shelter. Two people showed up with a strange offer: They needed 15 middle-aged men to meet an elected official for a discussion on homelessness.
Officials at Webster House, an emergency housing center in Poughkeepsie, said a man and a woman had appeared at the shelter’s entrance and announced that they were from the YIT Foundation, a local advocacy group for needy veterans that is formally known as the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation.
“They said, ‘We have work for anyone who is interested,’” said Christa Hines, CEO of Hudson River Housing, which runs Webster House.
The pair was offering money and bags of toiletries. Roughly 15 residents took them up on the offer, Hines said in an interview Friday with The New York Times.
Some of the men told The Mid Hudson News that they had been taken to the Daily Planet Diner in LaGrange, New York, and had been joined by a veterans advocate who said they could order anything they wanted, including drinks, the paper reported.
“We ate like kings,” one of the men told the paper.
After that, Toney-Finch told the men they were headed to a nearby veterans center where they would pose as veterans who had been kicked out of a local hotel, one of the shelter residents, William, 52, said in an interview Friday with The New York Times.
At the center, Heather Bell-Meyer, who heads the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, apparently believed the men were actual veterans and asked them to consider appearing before news cameras at a future date to speak about being displaced, said William, who said he would give only his first name because he feared reprisals from relatives who were military veterans.
Bell-Meyer did not respond to messages Friday.
“These folks are definitely struggling, unhoused and down on their luck; they were clearly preyed upon,” Hines said. “We were told that they were asked to go and offered money, but they were never paid.”
Republicans had used the concocted tale to denounce both the Biden administration and Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, who, facing limited space for hundreds of migrants arriving each day, has plans to send migrants to other towns.
Maher, the assemblyman, had even called for food donations for the chimerical veterans and encouraged local schoolchildren to write “thank you for your service” cards.
After the story fell apart, both Lawler, the congressperson, and Maher blamed Toney-Finch for inventing the false narrative. Lawler put out a statement denouncing it and Toney-Finch as “appalling.”
“Her decision to exploit our veterans — and the genuine admiration and love our community has for them — could have turned an already tense situation into something much worse,” he said.
But Toney-Finch, in a phone interview with the Times on Friday, said she had not made anything up and had been surprised herself by the displaced veterans story.
She said she had taken a small group of legitimate military veterans to the diner and to the event at the veterans center and had been joined by a larger group of men whom she did not know. She said she had not known that the outing would result in the spreading of a displaced-veteran story. In fact, she said, she had no idea where her group of veterans had been staying at the time.
“We never hired anybody,” she said. “I was used as a pawn.”
On Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul called the situation “deeply troubling.”
She said the hotel had a “legal contract” with the city to house migrants, “and if people want to fabricate stories to undermine the whole process, I think it’s reprehensible.”