Recent reports about how migrants displaced unhoused veterans from upstate New York hotels have turned out to be false after circulating widely among rightwing media outlets.
In an odd saga involving apparently altered receipts and paid unhoused actors, the chief executive of Yerik Israel Toney Foundation (YIT) – a non-profit organization focused on housing military veterans – has been accused of fabricating stories about unhoused veterans getting kicked out of hotels to make space for migrants.
Last week, the conservative tabloid New York Post ran a viral story about nearly two dozen unhoused veterans who were purportedly booted out of hotels in upstate New York because of a surge of migrants in search of asylum in the state.
The YIT foundation leader, Sharon Toney-Finch, spoke on the record to the outlet, whose story caught the attention of the local Republican state assembly member Brian Maher.
Maher told the New York Post that officials’ priority should be serving Americans over “asylum seekers”.
However, an investigation by local news outlets Mid Hudson News and the Times Union found several holes in Toney-Finch’s claims.
Mid Hudson News reported that Maher provided a copy of a credit card receipt that purportedly showed a payment of more than $37,000 for rooms at the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh for the unhoused veterans who were then allegedly displaced.
The Times Union also published an image of the receipt, along with a copy of what appears to be Toney-Finch’s credit card. The pictures were allegedly sent to Maher to confirm that YIT had booked and paid for hotel rooms for the unhoused veterans.
However, according to a graphics expert who examined the document, the receipt appeared to have been “altered with smudges behind the darker type and [had] different fonts”, Mid Hudson News reports.
Mid Hudson News also contacted the hotel manager who said: “I checked the dollar on the net on the credit card … and the screen shows no transactions. The hotel has no record of this transaction.”
He added that not only were there no veterans at the hotel, none were kicked out and no other guests were forced out of their rooms. The manager also told Mid Hudson News that although the hotel does have several asylum seekers there, it was not booked to capacity, and rooms were still available.
After concerns that the receipt had been edited, Maher asked Toney-Finch to meet him outside a local bank to provide further evidence that her foundation had indeed paid for the veterans’ rooms. Toney-Finch never appeared, however, the Times Union reported.
Additionally, several unhoused men proceeded to tell Mid Hudson News and Times Union that they were actually recruited to pose as displaced veterans.
Douglas Tery, Eric Brown and William – who asked Times Union not to use his last name – told the outlet that recruiters had come to their shelter in Poughkeepsie saying that they had work for 15 men between 40 and 60 years old, adding that they were offered $100 for two to three hours of work and that no heavy lifting would be required.
Several of the unhoused men from the shelter also told Mid Hudson News that they were asked to take a trip to meet with an elected official and discuss homelessness while being promised food, alcohol and money in return.
After they were recruited, the men were driven to a diner where they were joined by Toney-Finch, who told them that they could order freely from the menu, Mid Hudson News reports. “We ate like kings,” said one of the men, who wished to remain anonymous.
Following their meal, Toney-Finch gathered the men in a parking lot and asked them to act as if they were veterans who had been displaced, one of the men told Mid Hudson News.
The man also said that he and the others were instructed to say: “I am too traumatized to talk about it,” if asked to elaborate.
After local reports contesting Toney-Finch’s original claims emerged, Maher told Times Union that he was “devastated and disheartened” following a conversation with Toney-Finch which revealed the story to be a hoax.
“She alluded to the fact that, ‘Maybe it’s not exactly how I said it was,’” Maher recounted to Times Union, adding: “This is something I believe hurt a lot of people.”
Speaking to the Associated Press, Toney-Finch refused to say that her claims were fabricated and instead said: “We should have verified better.”
The Associated Press reported that Toney-Finch abruptly ended the phone call upon further questioning.
On Friday, a spokesperson from state attorney general Leticia James’s office told Politico that the office is aware of the situation and is “looking into it”.
The New York governor, Kathy Hochul, has condemned the apparent ruse, telling reporters that people seeking asylum “were sent there with a legal contract between the city of New York and a hotel owner”.
The governor added: “They are allowed to contract that way and if people want to fabricate stories to undermine the whole process, I think it’s reprehensible.”
Meanwhile, after aggressively covering Toney-Finch’s claims as if the channel believed her, Fox News on Saturday issued a rare, on-air correction. Network host Laura Ingraham said: “Turns out the group behind the claim made it up. We have no clue as to why anyone would do such a thing, but we’ll bring you any updates should they come.”