Story of homeless veterans displaced by migrants was false (2023)

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Hudson Valley // News

A claim that veterans were ousted from Hudson Valley lodging as a result of NYC's migrant surge was a tall tale

Lana Bellamy,Phillip Pantuso,Brendan J. Lyons

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Story of homeless veterans displaced by migrants was false (11)
Story of homeless veterans displaced by migrants was false (12)
Story of homeless veterans displaced by migrants was false (13)

UPDATE: On Friday, three men currently staying at a homeless shelter said they were among a group of 15 recruited to portray homeless veterans displaced from upstate hotels by incoming migrants.

UPDATE: On Friday, New York’s attorney general’s office said it is looking into claims that veterans were displaced by migrants.

NEWBURGH— Over the past week, a sensational story has torn through local and national media: A local nonprofit said homeless veterans under its care had been kicked out of upstate hotels to make room for migrants bused from New York City. But the story has fallen apart over the past 48 hours, culminating Thursday evening with state Assemblyman Brian Maher, R-Walden, who had been advocating for the veterans in national media and in the state Legislature, denouncing it as false in a call with the Times Union.

Maher said he was “devastated and disheartened” after a conversation with the CEO of the nonprofit earlier in the day revealed that the story wasn’t true. He is calling for the organization to be investigated by the state attorney general’s office and the Orange County district attorney.

“This is something I believe hurt a lot of people,” Maher said.

The story began to unravel Wednesday when Mid Hudson News reported that the manager of the Newburgh hotel that had purportedly displaced veterans had no dealings with the nonprofit. By Friday, the state attorney general’s office was examining the story.

According to Maher’s account, he was taken for a ride. Sharon Toney-Finch, the CEO of the nonprofit, is a respected person in the community with a track record of helping veterans, he said. At a Wingate hotel in Fishkill, Maher spoke with two people claiming to be veterans who were displaced from the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh, which has received 110 migrants sent by New York City; he spoke to a purported driver who transported the displaced vets; and he assembled care packages and solicited donations after the nonprofit asked for his help.

Maher shared the names and phone numbers of the purported veterans and the driver with the Times Union. On Friday, one of the purported veterans told a reporter that he had been recruited to take part in a scheme designed to perpetuate Toney-Finch’s story.

But it wasn’t until after Maher waited three hours outside a local bank for Toney-Finch to provide evidence that she had paid for veterans’ rooms at the Crossroads that the reality of the situation became clear to him.

A GOP source in the state Assembly provided the Times Union with an image of a copy of what they initially said was Toney-Finch’s credit card as well as what was purported to be a receipt showing a payment with that credit card on April 12 for $37,800 to Crossroads Hotel. That was also sent to Maher as proof the hotel rooms had been booked and paid for by the foundation.

Story of homeless veterans displaced by migrants was false (14)

But the lawmaker wanted further proof of the receipt after concerns arose that the screenshotinvoice had been digitally manipulated. So Maher asked Toney-Finch to meet him at the bank to gather financial statements. She didn’t show. Maher said that as he realized Toney-Finch had made up the story, he called her and pressed her on why she would do that. He said she just kept repeating that she was trying to help the veterans and appeared to unravel emotionally.

But according to Maher, “She alluded to the fact that, ‘Maybe it’s not exactly how I said it was.’”

Maher said that’s when he told Toney-Finch he had “no choice but to report this,” adding that he would refer the matter to local prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office.

“If this is something that you’re saying you’re doing and spending money on and it’s not happening, what else is happening?” he said, recounting their conversation.

About two hours later, Maher said he got on the phone with Toney-Finch again.

“It was my final conversation with Sharon,” he said, his voice slightly choking up. “It was very emotional. And I said to her: ‘I was trying to help. … We just wanted to help you, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you more.’”

Multiple attempts by the Times Union to speak withToney-Finch earlier in the week were unsuccessful. On Friday afternoon, she sent a text message to a Times Union reporter denying that she had recruited homeless people to pose as veterans.

Asked why so many people would lie about it, she wrote: “I have to figure that out.”

Offers to help rebuffed or ignored

The story of the displaced veterans, which was first published by the New York Post on Friday night, cites two sources. The first is Toney-Finch, CEO of the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation (YIT), an Orange County nonprofit formed to raise awareness of premature births and to help homeless and low-income military service veterans who need living assistance, according to its website.

Toney-Finch is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and has said that she was awarded a Purple Heart and suffers from a traumatic brain injury. She claimed YIT paid for lodging for 20 veterans in Newburgh and Wallkill, who were two weeks into a month-long stay when they were allegedly evicted, forcing her to scramble to find alternative shelter for them.

Records provided by the U.S. Army on Thursday confirm that Toney-Finch, 43, served in the Army from 2006 to 2015 as a specialist, including two one-year deployments to Iraq beginning in March 2007 and October 2009. Her nearly 20 military awards include an Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, according to Army records. She is also in theNational Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

The second source for the Post story is Maher, a Navy reservist who represents the 101st District. Maher had previously volunteered with and donated to YIT. 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.

According to Toney-Finch’s account to the Post, 15 veterans had been evicted from the Crossroads Hotel and another five were forced out of two hotels in Wallkill.

Initial media reports quote her saying that all 20 displaced veterans had been sent to a hotel in Fishkill. That’s also what she told Mental Health America of Dutchess County, which assists veterans through its Vet2Vet program.

MHA CEO Andrew O’Grady said his staff had two “coordination meetings” with Toney-Finch to plan temporary housing and services for the purportedly displaced veterans. When he spoke about his experience with the Times Union on Wednesday, he wanted to make clear that he respected Toney-Finch and the mission of her foundation, which he has worked with in the past.

Usually, the foundation would provide his team names and contact information for vets in need and MHA would “pick up the ball from there and work on getting them housing,” O’Grady said. If they need short-term housing, his organization works to find them long-term housing; if they have long-term housing in Dutchess County, his team still connects to make sure the vets know where to turn if they ever need anything, he said.

“This situation was completely different,” O’Grady said.

When his staff asked Toney-Finch for names and contact information for the veterans, he said she didn’t outright refuse them, but never got around to handing them over. He felt rebuffed. MHA staff were told they were staying at a Wingate by Windham in Fishkill, a hotel MHA has previously used to temporarily shelter veterans.

When MHA staff inquired further as days passed, Toney-Finch told them the veterans were now being housed “somewhere in Connecticut,” O’Grady said, adding: “We stand and stood ready to help any veterans in Dutchess County, but we have not been able to confirm that the veterans are in Dutchess County and have not been able to obtain any names of the veterans.”

The general manager of the Fishkill Wingate told the Times Union on Wednesday that no veterans from the Crossroads were being sheltered there.Toney-Finch had contacted him several times, he said, but he didn’t have room.

“This is insane,” he said.

The federal Veterans Administration had also reached out to Toney-Finch to assist, but those offers were rebuffed, according to a statement sent Thursday to the Times Union. The VA’s requests for identification and contact information for the veterans— which would allow the agency to verify the veterans’ service history and benefits eligibility and to provide independent follow-up care— were declined by YIT.

“At this time, VA has not been able to verify key aspects of this situation as reported by the New York Post,” the statement reads.

The day after the Post story broke, U.S. Rep. Pat Ryan’s office also contacted YIT saying it had arranged 500 rooms across the region that could take any veterans who needed housing. Ryan is a West Point graduate who has made veterans’ issues a key part of his platform and whose congressional district includes Newburgh. But his office did not receive a response from YIT, a spokesman confirmed.

The story also didn’t make sense to other Orange County nonprofit leaders who regularly work together to assist unhoused people.

Chris Molinelli, the executive director of HONOR— an emergency housing shelter in Middletown— and president of the Orange County Continuum of Care, said members of his organization were shocked to hear there were any unhoused veterans living in Orange County, let alone 20 living in the Crossroads Hotel.

The Continuum of Care reached out to YIT to offer assistance, but Molinelli said their help wasn’t accepted.

“We (HONOR) touch the lives of veterans,” Molinelli said. “It’s not our specialty, per se, but I think our friends who do that every day weren’t aware of it either. That’s what makes you scratch your head a little bit.”

Michele McKeon, chief operating officer for the Regional Economic Action Program in Middletown and a Continuum of Care leader, said RECAP reached out to Toney-Finch multiple times, offering more than $30,000 in housing subsidies, clothing, food and case management services.

None of those offers were accepted.

Damage done to the Crossroads

The general manager of the Crossroads Hotel declined to be interviewed when a reporter visited the hotel on Wednesday and Thursday. But an attorney for the hotel told a state Supreme Court justice that the story was a lie, based on conversations with his client.

In a letter to Justice Sandra Sciortino dated May 17, Todd Solloway wrote that there “are not now, and never were, any group of veterans at the hotel and certainly none were kicked out to make way for migrant asylum seekers.”

“My client and their staff are receiving serious threats— including death threats— from all over the county as a result of his false accusation,” Solloway wrote. “And, this morning, the staff at the Hotel were forced to call 911 to seek protection against someone who was menacing the staff at the hotel, claiming he was looking for the veterans.”

Maher said he plans to personally apologize to the Crossroads Hotel staff about what has happened.

“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 said.

Two days before he confronted Toney-Finch, Maher had honored her at the state Capitol and recounted for his fellow lawmakers how her son weighed one pound at birth and died at seven months of age.

“Sharon created this foundation to help other (premature) babies and their families with costs, transportation to hospitals and so many other things that she just didn’t have the support for when she was in the military,” Maher said in the Assembly chamber. “She has created this foundation which also now creates opportunities for homeless veterans and those that are in need who have served our country.”

Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, speaker pro tempore, extended the courtesies of the chamber to Toney-Finch, who appeared nervous as the lawmakers around her applauded.

“We welcome you here to the New York state Assembly,” Aubry said. “Thank you for the work that you’re doing in your respective communities and that you have turned, in some cases, tragedy into helping others. We appreciate that. We salute you and applaud you for that. Please know that you always have a friend here in Albany.”

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