NEW YORK – The founder of a nonprofit group has been accused of fabricating a story about homeless military veterans being evicted from a New York hotel to make room for migrants, a tale that stoked days of outrage on cable news networks.
One Republican lawmaker in New York who helped spread the story is now calling for an investigation, saying he and others were duped.
The uproar began after New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, bused a small group of asylum seekers to a suburban hotel as the city's homeless shelter system struggled to accommodate an influx of migrants from the U.S. border with Mexico.
The group's transfer prompted a political backlash from Republican county officials, who accused the mayor of trying to offload his problems on unprepared communities.
Then, the founder of a small charity in the area added an explosive claim: To make way for the migrants, a hotel in Newburgh, New York, evicted nearly two dozen homeless veterans.
That story, told by Yerik Israel Toney Foundation chief executive Sharon Toney-Finch, was picked up May 12 by The New York Post and quickly followed by Fox News, Newsmax and other conservative news outlets. The Post on Friday published a follow-up story reporting on the latest development.
“Our veterans have been placed in another hotel due to what’s going on with the immigrants,’’ Toney-Finch told the Post in its initial story, saying her group had made arrangements to find alternative lodging. “We didn’t waste any time."
State Assemblyman Brian Maher, a Republican, introduced legislation that would prohibit the displacement of homeless veterans. In an appearance on Fox News, he called the purported evictions an “absolute embarrassment on all fronts.”
Cracks in the story emerged after an investigation by a local newspaper, the Mid Hudson News.
The managers of the hotel told the paper the story wasn't true. A receipt purporting to show that the Crossroads Hotel had been paid $37,800 to house the veterans appeared to have been sloppily doctored.
In a follow-up report Friday, the Mid-Hudson News reported that several men staying at a homeless shelter in Poughkeepsie, New York, had come forward to say they were recruited to pretend they were among the veterans kicked out of the hotel. The paper quoted some of the men as saying they were offered $200, food and alcohol to take part in the ruse.
They said they met with Toney-Finch, then participated in a meeting at a veterans center in Orange County with local chamber of commerce officials.
Toney-Finch denied giving any money to the men.
In a brief interview with The Associated Press, she declined to say directly that her story was not true, but she suggested that a misunderstanding might have led to confusion.
“We should have verified better,” she said. She abruptly ended the phone call when pressed for details.
Maher said in a written statement that he had a conversation with Toney-Finch on Thursday where he learned that the story about homeless veterans being displaced was false.
“The YIT Foundation purports to protect and support veterans, but the dishonest claims and fabrication of the facts by YIT does enormous harm to our homeless veterans by creating mistrust," Maher said, referring to the foundation by its shortened name. “I am calling for an immediate investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office and the Orange County District Attorney into the YIT Foundation based on the new information that came to light today.”
“While I believed Sharon was telling the truth, I do want to apologize for those that have been negatively impacted since this news broke," he added.
New York City's mayor also called for an investigation into what he called a “fraudulent claim.”
“Instead of stepping up, we’re seeing hateful language and outright lies,” Adams said in a Twitter post.
On its website, the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation advertises its focus as helping raise awareness of premature births and assisting families with transportation and lodging while their infants are in neonatal intensive care units.
It also says it helps “homeless and low-income military service veterans in need of living assistance.”
New York says more than 65,000 migrants have arrived in the city over the past year, with the first of them bused by Republican governors in border states to draw attention to their displeasure over federal border policies.