Skip to content
Home » How a false story about migrants displacing homeless veterans caught fire

How a false story about migrants displacing homeless veterans caught fire

The arrival of asylum-seeking migrants in the U.S. — both at the southern border and in major cities — has spawned a tidal wave of social media claims that are often both alarming and false.

As New York City struggles with an influx of asylum seekers — more than 70,000 migrants have arrived there in recent months — a new claim took center stage.

It was an alarming story that fit neatly into baseless talking points about President Joe Biden and the southern border. But it wasn’t true.

Sharon Toney-Finch, founder of the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping homeless military veterans and others, in mid-May told a New York state legislator and the New York Post that New York City mayor Eric Adams’ relocation of migrants to upstate New York hotels came at an unfortunate cost.

She said 20 veterans her organization paid to house at three hotels in Orange County were displaced to make room for the migrants, a story that sparked widespread outrage.

Toney-Finch told the story to the New York Post, which published a May 12 article about the supposedly displaced veterans.

“Homeless vets are being booted from NY hotels to make room for migrants: advocates,” read the headline of the Post’s online story. “Vets kicked out for migrants,” read an all-caps headline in a May 13 “border crisis”-themed Post print edition. “Outrage as upstate hotels tell 20 veterans to leave,” a subhed read.

The Post article quoted New York Assembly Member Brian Maher, a Republican, who shared Toney-Finch’s claims in a May 12 press release and said he was introducing legislation “to prohibit the displacement of homeless veterans once placed in housing.” The press release also described Maher’s meetings with some of the displaced veterans.

Maher continued to share the story in appearances on Fox News, blaming Democrats including President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul for the treatment of the veterans.

“It’s a total embarrassment. It’s a slap in the face to veterans,” Maher said May 15 in a “Fox & Friends First” interview. “You had combat veterans, who are homeless, who were told to get out of their hotel after one day.”

Fox News devoted several May 15 segments to the story.

“We begin with a southern border crisis and how America’s heroes are now paying the price,” Emily Compagno, Fox News co-host of “Outnumbered,” began a May 15 segment about the New York Post story.

“Our veterans, the brave men and women who risked their lives to keep America free, now being kicked to the curb? Because of the disaster unfolding on our border?” she said.

“A president that would leave Americans stranded in Afghanistan probably doesn’t see the onus to take care of 20 veterans in a hotel,” said Fox News contributor Joey Jones in a May 15 segment of Fox News’ “The Faulkner Focus.”

The story was spread widely by users on social media, including by high-profile Republicans such as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor.

It also quickly spread on conservative media sites.

Toney-Finch had told the New York Post that 15 veterans were displaced from the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh, as well as others at a Super 8 and Hampton Inn in Middletown.

Although there were more than 100 migrants staying at the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh, a subject of controversy in the New York suburb, cracks soon began to appear in the story about the homeless veterans’ displacement.

A local newspaper, the Mid Hudson News, reported May 17 that an unnamed manager at the Crossroads Hotel said no homeless veterans were staying there and that a credit card receipt for hotel rooms provided by Toney-Finch was not legitimate.

That same day, Todd Soloway, an attorney representing the Crossroads Hotel in a lawsuit filed by the city of Newburgh and Orange County over the transfer of asylum seekers to the region, wrote a letter to New York Supreme Court Justice Sandra Sciortino and said “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.”

Rob Myers, a Wyndham Hotels & Resorts spokesperson, told PolitiFact on May 23 that the Super 8 in Middletown is a franchise, but “after speaking with the hotel’s owner, it’s our understanding that no guests — veterans or otherwise — were ever displaced, nor is the hotel housing any migrants.” The Hampton Inn in Middletown didn’t return our request for comment.

Then, Maher backtracked on the claim. He told the Times Union, an Albany newspaper, in an article published May 18 that he had been duped by Toney-Finch. He said he was “devastated and disheartened” and that the false story “hurt a lot of people.”

Maher, who didn’t respond to an email from PolitiFact, also told several news outlets — including the New York Post, which published a followup article May 18, CNN and The Associated Press — that the story wasn’t true.

The Times Union published a follow-up article May 19, quoting three homeless men who said they were recruited by Toney-Finch to pose as displaced veterans.

Fox News has since retracted its erroneous stories, as did the New York Post in follow-up stories.

But, as often happens with debunked claims, the truth has some catching up to do. The New York Post’s new story debunking the earlier claims received a fraction of the attention the original story received.

A search of CrowdTangle, a tool that tracks how publicly available content is being shared, showed May 23 that the link to the original New York Post article has been shared nearly 300 times on Facebook by accounts with a cumulative 20 million followers. On Twitter, accounts with a total of about 120,000 followers shared the link.

The new, corrected New York Post story was shared 14 times on Facebook, reaching about 285,000 followers. It was more widely shared on Twitter, from accounts that reach more than 1.8 million followers, according to CrowdTangle.

A May 12 tweet about the false story by New York Post columnist Miranda Devine, in which she wrote “Joe Biden and (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro) Mayorkas should burn in hell for this,” had 1.6 million views on Twitter. Her reply to the same tweet May 23 apologizing and sharing the new story reached about 36,000 viewers.

Using NewsWhip May 23, a social media engagement tracking site, we found the original New York Post article received 74,800 interactions in 11 days across Facebook and Twitter.

The new story about the hoax had received about 2,000 interactions across both platforms in the four days since it was published, Newswhip data showed. It defines interactions as likes, shares, comments and retweets an article or post receives.

Toney-Finch did not return a request for comment, but has denied the allegations to other outlets, telling The New York Times she had been “used as a pawn.” Her organization on Twitter also called the claim she hired homeless people to pose as displaced veterans “lies.” Another tweet admitted homeless veterans weren’t displaced, but said, “There is a bigger picture then all is missing on how this spinned.”

Maher called for an investigation into Toney-Finch’s organization. A spokesperson for New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office told PolitiFact, “We’re aware of the allegations and (are) reviewing them.”

Ryan Greenbaum, a senior assistant district attorney with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said, “lying, without more, does not itself constitute criminal conduct, particularly absent allegations of financial impropriety.”

“However, the District Attorney’s Office is investigating the facts and circumstances in this matter as it pertains to allegations of fraud related to veterans,” Greenbaum said.

Staff researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Madison Czopek contributed to this report.

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. See the sources for this fact check here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!