A group of homeless men in New York state were tricked into posing as veterans for the purposes of spreading a story shaming asylum seekers, the Mid-Hudson News reported on May 19 2023.
“It was brought to my attention that two people came to the homeless shelter in Poughkeepsie and recruited fifteen of our homeless guests under the guise of meeting a politician in Connecticut about homeless issues,” said Andrew O’Grady, president of Mental Health America of Dutchess County.
The group of recruits were the centerpiece of claims that they were “displaced” from a hotel to make way for immigrants. Those claims — which were debunked, meaning that no veterans were kicked out of any hotel for any asylum-seeker — were attributed to a woman identified as Sharon Toney-Finch, chief executive officer of the non-profit Yerik Israel Toney Foundation (YIT).
Finch’s original claim that veterans had been forced out of the hotel in favor of asylum-seekers gained attention from the right-wing New York Post:
Toney-Finch said she believes it all comes down to money.
“They want to get paid” more, she said of the hotels, referring to what her group shells out to get the vets housing compared to what the city is paying for each migrant.
“That’s so unfair, because at the end of the day, we are a small nonprofit, and we do pay $88 a day for a veteran to be there,” she said.
The story now bears an editor’s note saying, “Editor’s note: This non-profit CEO has since been accused of misrepresenting the veterans who have been displaced for migrants.”
The Post’s only sources for its original story were Finch and Republican state Assemblyman Brian Maher, who said in a statement at the time:
I have met and talked to these veterans. We have bank statements showing purchases were made to the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh and today we will be making veterans available to speak to the press. We look forward to having any questions answered on this issue today.
However, that claim was debunked by the Mid-Hudson News:
[Maher] provided a credit card receipt that purports to show a more than $37,000 payment for rooms for the vets.
But, a graphics expert examined the receipt and said it appears to have been altered with smudges behind the darker type and different fonts on the receipt.
Contacted by Mid-Hudson News [on May 17 2023] and provided with a copy of the receipt, the hotel manager said, “I checked the dollar on the net on the credit card ending in 5728 and the screen shows no transactions. The hotel has no record of this transaction.”
According to the northern New York-based Times Union newspaper, Maher made political grist out of Finch’s claims:
In the past week, he introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would bar hotels from displacing veterans to accept migrants sent by New York City, and he appeared on Fox News to discuss the situation and call for donations. On Tuesday, he proudly introduced Toney-Finch at a legislative session in Albany, where she was also honored as a “2023 woman of distinction” by state Sen. Rob Rolison, R-Poughkeepsie.
Maher has since recanted his allegations, saying that he was “devastated and disheartened” after Finch backtracked on her own claim. The assemblyman, a former U.S. Navy Reservist, said he plans to apologize to the hotel’s staff.
“I do believe, based on this specific issue, there were some employees there that probably had a much harder day at work than they needed to,” he told the newspaper.
The YIT website claims:
Our Founder: Sharon-Toney Finch, a disabled military veteran, created YIT in honor of the premature birth of her son Yerik.
The YIT Foundation strives to raise awareness of premature births, offer assistance to preemies (and their families), and provide a place to stay or transportation while the babies are in NICU.
We also help homeless and low-income military service veterans in need of living assistance.
One of the men reportedy recruited to pose as a veteran, who did not wish to give his name, told the Mid-Hudson News that the group was taken to a diner and told that their meals would be paid for.
“Sharon introduced herself and told us we could have whatever we wanted and she would pick up the tab,” he said.
After the meal, the men said, Finch met with them in a veterans’ services facility in a nearby town, New Windsor, where she explained their “job” prior to meeting with a woman later identified as Heather Bell-Meyer, president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce:
One of the men said Finch told them they were going to a meeting where she would be explaining how they had been kicked out of a hotel to make room for migrants. “She told us to act like we were the veterans that had been displaced. And she told us that if asked, we were supposed to say we had been kicked out and Sharon found us rooms in Fishkill.” He also noted that men who were unwilling to answer were told to respond with “I am too traumatized to talk about it,” if asked.
Finch told Politico that claims that she had recruited homeless people to pose as veterans were a “total lie.”
Not all of the men recruited for the apparent scheme ended up taking part; the Times Union reported that people who opted out “were given toiletries and other necessities” and taken back to the Poughkeepsie shelter. However, two of the men who chose not to take part — 55-year-old Douglas Tery and a 52-year-old man who only identified himself as William — said that they did not receive the cash payment (first $100, later $200) promised to them.
“We’re just aggravated,” William said. “We’re homeless at the shelter, they’re dangling a carrot in front of us and then they took it away. We had plans to use that money to help us and they’ve totally taken it away.”
People seeking asylum in the United States — a process that is completely legal and above-board — have consistently been easy targets for demonization and harassment, including reports of coerced busing out of states like Texas and Florida. According to the Times-Union, an attorney for the Crossroads Hotel informed state Justice Sandra Sciortino that both the staff and its general managers have received death threats in the wake of the debunked story.
A spokesperson for the advocacy group For The Many, Aaron Narraph Fernando, told the Hudson Valley Journal News that the damage from this latest instance of disinformation has already been done.
“This fake story of George Santos proportions has already made its way into the national media and kicked up a storm of anti-immigrant hatred,” Fernando said. “It has turned local residents against migrants, sending xenophobic, racist outrage toward asylum seekers who are simply trying to make a new home for themselves in Newburgh.”