How a false story about migrants displacing homeless veterans went viral

Over the past week, a story alleging that homeless military veterans were booted from New York hotel rooms being used as temporary shelters to make way for newly arrived migrants dominated right-wing networks and tabloid newspapers.

The front page ofThe New York Post ran with “VETS KICKED OUT FOR MIGRANTS” on 13 May, and the story was picked up by Fox News and Newsmax, where former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed that “our veterans again are being kicked to the curb”.

Republican officials immediately seized on the story as purported evidence for the “crisis” at the US-Mexico border and in Democratic-led US cities.

But that story was false.

The claims appear to have originally come from founder of a veterans’ advocacy group, according to The Mid Hudson News and The Times Union of Albany.

The story’s unraveling has also placed that woman, Sharon Toney-Finch, and her nonprofit, Yerik Israel Toney Foundation, under the scrutiny of state investigators and raised questions about her own military history.

Over the last year, New York City’s Democratic Mayor Eric Adams has struggled to find shelters and long-term housing for hundreds of migrants who are being bused north from Republican border states.

Earlier this month, the Adams administration reportedly clashed with officials in Orange County, upstate New York, over his plans to send two buses of migrants to the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh. That plan was paused on 10 May.

On 12 May, The New York Post ran a story alleging that “nearly two dozen struggling homeless veterans have been booted from upstate hotels to make room for migrants”. Ms Toney-Finch’s group was cited as the source for the information.

But reporters from The Times Union and Mid Hudson News, two outlets based in upstate New York, could not find any of the allegedly displaced veterans, and Crossroads, the hotel at the centre of the controversy ,said it did not have any records of veterans recently staying there.

Homeless men told The Times Union that they were approached by unidentified “recruiters” at a shelter in Poughkeepsie, New York, taken to a diner, offered money and bags of toiletries, then transported to a nearby veterans centre to pose as veterans who were kicked out of a hotel.

Asked by the Associated Press about the alleged scheme, Ms Toney-Finch did not say whether the claims were fabricated but stated that “we should have verified better”.

The Independent has requested comment from Ms Toney-Finch and the foundation.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul condemned the apparent scheme, telling reporters that people seeking asylum “were sent there with a legal contract between the city of New York and a hotel owner”.

“They are allowed to contract that way and if people want to fabricate stories to undermine the whole process, I think it’s reprehensible,” she added.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is “looking into” the allegations, her office told Politico.

Yerik Israel Toney Foundation works to help “homeless and low-income military service veterans in need of living assistance,” according to the group’s website.

Ms Toney-Finch was inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame in 2022 and is listed in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

Last week, she was honoured by New York State Senator Rob Rolison as a “woman of distinction”, who also noted that she is a Purple Heart recipient.

However while Ms Toney-Finch has received several military honours, there is nothing to indicate that she is a Purple Heart recipient, according to a review of her military records by The Daily Beast.

The fake story played into the right-wing outrage that has reached fever pitch since the expiration of Title 42, a Trump-era border policy, that Republican officials and pundits predicted would result in immigration “chaos”.

Prominent New York Republicans used the apparent story to condemn Democratic officials.

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik sharedThe Post’s front cover on social media on 13 May. “Biden’s America. Kathy Hochul’s New York. Eric Adams’s New York City,” she wrote. “A disgrace.”

Congressman Mike Lawler called the alleged incident a “debacle.”

“If Mayor Eric Adams had a shred of decency, he would drive up to Orange County tomorrow and apologize to these veterans himself,” he said, in a statement on 12 May. It was later removed from his website.

Mr Lawler later called the bogus story and Ms Toney-Finch “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 in a statement.

Brian Maher, a Republican state assembly member, told Fox News on 15 May that the claims were “a slap in the face to veterans, to citizens of New York in this country, who are really being cast aside to allow for asylum seekers to come here”.

He later apologised for spreading the foundation’s false claims and distanced himself from the group.

“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 said.

Mr Maher also called for investigations by the New York State Attorney General and the Orange County District Attorney into the incident.

Mayor Adams has repeatedly pressed for federal assistance while continuing to search for housing options for tens of thousands of people who have arrived in New York in the past year.

With the end of Title 42, the state is preparing for “several thousand additional people seeking shelter each week,” according to the governor’s recent emergency order.

“[U]pwards of 500 people” arrived each day as the city prepared for the end of Title 42, according to the mayor’s spokesperson Fabien Levy.

In 2022, NYC agencies sheltered more than 61,000 asylum seekers, with roughly 37,500 people in city shelters and emergency housing.

New York City shelters house more than 75,000 people on any given night, while countless remain on the streets, according to Coalition for the Homeless.