A news story blaming White House immigration policies for causing more than 20 homeless veterans to be booted from their temporary shelters is now being denounced as an elaborate hoax, with the New York lawmaker at the center calling it a heartbreaking affront to his work to help veterans.
The fallout of the false report spread much further than the New York suburb where it started. The case drew national attention from conservative outlets and mainstream media, and furthered political fights over whether the federal government is doing too much to help new immigrants and not enough to help struggling veterans.
The incident began on May 12, when the New York Post reported that about 20 veterans staying in a Newburgh, N.Y., hotel had been kicked out by management to make room for incoming migrants being housed through county funding. Leaders from the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation said they had to scramble to find new housing overnight to keep the veterans from ending up back on the street.
In response, New York State Assemblyman Brian Maher — himself a Navy veteran — introduced legislation to prohibit any such future harm to veterans. He blamed “the failure of the federal government to better manage the migrant crisis” as the reason for the veterans’ plight. In an interview with Military Times, Maher said he had worked closely with the foundation for years and spoke to several individuals who said they were displaced by the moves. He was also given bank records showing hotel payments by the non-profit on behalf of the veterans.
But as the story was picked up by national media, details began to unravel. Veterans Affairs officials said they had no record of any direct work with the New York charity, or any reports of veterans in need of help from local partners. They also said their requests to speak with the veterans were refused by foundation leaders.
On May 17, the Mid Hudson News reported that hotel officials had no record of any payments by the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation or of homeless veterans using their location for temporary housing.
Maher said he confirmed a day later that the veterans in question never existed, and that the incident was made up in an misguided attempt by foundation officials to draw attention to veterans issues.
“My heart is broken,” he said. “This looks to have been a complete and elaborate lie. [The foundation] had a lot of people working on this, and I had trust in them. But in the end, this did not happen.”
Foundation Executive Director Sharon Finch did not respond to requests for comment. Maher said he spoke with her on Thursday and she admitted the fraud. He has called for an investigation by the New York State Attorney General into the foundation in light of the incident.
On Friday, the Mid Hudson News spoke to seven local homless veterans who said they were recruited by the foundation to lie about their experiences as part of the scheme.
Despite the lies, Maher said he is undeterred in his opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and their potential effects on states like New York. But he conceded that in this case, the concerns were unfounded.
Whether the retraction gets as much attention as the initial news reports remains to be seen.
Veterans who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness can call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3838, or visit the department’s web site for available resources.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.