Claims that homeless veterans were pushed out of a Newburgh, New York, hotel to make room for migrants are false, according to two homeless men who told CNN they were part of a group of 15 who were offered money to pose as veterans.
The men allege they were offered as much as $200 to sell the ruse to a local chamber of commerce, which did not believe that veterans were pushed out for migrants, the men said.
The situation made tensions between the area and New York City worse, as earlier this week a New York state Supreme Court judge granted a temporary restraining order blocking New York City Mayor Eric Adams from sending asylum seekers to Orange County, where Newburgh is located.
“We were scammed,” Douglas Terry, 55, said about Sharon Toney-Finch, a nonprofit leader who houses the homeless. Terry and others identified Toney-Finch as the person who allegedly offered money and never paid up. “It’s messed up how can they do that to us. They scammed us.”
Another man who only gave his first name, William, said the group was allegedly told to say they were military veterans who were pushed out of their hotel rooms. If they were uncomfortable saying that, William said, they were told they should say they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They dangled a carrot in front of an animal and they led us. Now they took the carrot away and we’re angry,” William said.
Toney-Finch denied the allegations to CNN, saying she never offered money to homeless men to say they had to leave the Crossroads Hotel in the Town of Newburgh.
“I never promised to pay anybody,” Toney-Finch said, adding that she only told State Assemblyman Brian Maher that she had homeless veterans who were displaced, not that it was because of asylum seekers.
Maher, a Republican lawmaker who is also a volunteer spokesperson for the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation, which helps veterans in need of living assistance, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
He previously told CNN that some veterans who were staying at the Crossroads Hotel were told on May 7 they had to leave the hotel on short notice.
“They basically told the vets they had one day to leave,” Maher said on Monday.
“No one blames the asylum seekers for what’s happening,” Maher told CNN at the time.
Terry and William told CNN that associates of Toney-Finch allegedly went to a homeless shelter trying to round up volunteers to go with her to Connecticut to speak with a local politician.
She found 15 volunteers and took them to a nearby diner where she bought them all the food and alcohol they wanted, they added.
When the meal was over, Toney-Finch allegedly rounded them up in the parking lot and told them they were instead going to meet with a local member of the chamber of commerce, with instructions that they were to say they were veterans and they were being displaced to make room for asylum seekers. If they weren’t comfortable speaking, Toney-Finch told them to say they suffered from PTSD and couldn’t speak, the two men said.
Toney-Finch allegedly took them back to the shelter once the meeting was done and told some that she was going to come back on Friday with the money, the men said. The men allege she never paid them.
“I never said that and I never did that,” Toney-Finch told CNN.
The office of Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus referred CNN to the county district attorney’s office and the New York State attorney general’s office.
Orange County Chief Assistant District Attorney Christopher P. Borek told CNN his office doesn’t normally comment on the existence or non-existence of investigations.
In part, Borek said, “The District Attorney’s Office will ensure that all matters involving allegations of fraud related to veterans are thoroughly investigated.”
A spokeswoman for New York State Attorney General Letitia James told CNN the office is reviewing details of the incident to determine whether they will open a formal investigation.
Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams said he supported a probe of the incident.
“New York City has cared for more than 65k migrants and we’re asking other places in the state to do their part. Instead of stepping up, we’re seeing hateful language and outright lies. I agree there should be an investigation into this fraudulent claim,” Adams tweeted about the allegation.
Andrew O’Grady, CEO for Mental Health of America of Dutchess County, said he fielded phone calls from some homeless men who said they were part of this scam.
“It was a weird day for them,” O’Grady said. “Many were frankly upset that they didn’t get paid and they were upset they were being duped into doing something.”