Stolen valor and ‘homeless veterans’: Inside a failed hoax
A woman who made up a story of veterans being evicted from a homeless shelter also may have lied about earning a Purple Heart.
It was a story that drew national headlines: homeless veterans at three hotels in upstate New York were unceremoniously kicked out to make room for “immigrants.” The incident got coverage on cable news channels including Fox News. It came at a time when many veterans are facing potential homelessness as COVID emergency aid money expires. It looked like a nightmare for the Biden administration as evidence for claims that its immigration policies were hurting veterans.
There was one big problem: the story was entirely made up by a political operative who appears to have also been caught lying about being awarded a Purple Heart.
Sharon Toney-Finch, the woman who has admitted being behind the hoax, claims on her Facebook page to be a “Purple Heart Recipient,” a claim still in place when checked by Task & Purpose on the afternoon of May 22.
The Pentagon has released Toney-Finch’s service record, which does not include a Purple Heart. She served as a Automated Logistical Specialist from 2006 to 2015, deploying twice to Iraq.
In the end, no veterans were displaced to house migrants in New York’s Orange and Dutchess counties. In fact, the evidence behind the claims turned out to be intentional fabrications. As national coverage exploded, local news outlets Mid-Hudson News and the Times Union broke the news that it was a hoax. The outlets got New York Assemblyman Brian Maher, who had expressed outrage over the apparent displacement, to admit he and others were tricked by the scam.
Even the “immigrants” were mostly made up. As with other parts of the country, New York state saw an influx of refugees and migrants this month with the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that let the government expel asylum seekers to neighboring countries. But no specific group of migrants was transferred to Orange or Dutchess county to displace veterans, officials say.
Anatomy of a ‘homeless hoax’
The hoax was rooted in a genuine story: New York state authorities have been dealing with an influx of migrants, many of them asylum seekers, with the end of federal rules under Title 42. The pandemic-era rules let the government expel asylum seekers to neighboring countries, rather than seek temporary stays in the US as their applications were processed. Local governments have been trying to find ways to house and shelter them.
At the same time, efforts to end veteran homelessness enjoy bipartisan support across the United States, with state and local governments in New York supporting a host of measures.
The hoax appears to have been launched to feed, or cash in on, fears related to Title 42.
The initial allegations began on Friday, May 12 in the New York Post. The story cited both Maher as well as Yerik Israel Toney Foundation CEO Toney-Finch, herself an Army veteran. Per their accounts, 20 unhoused veterans staying in three hotels were forced out of the spaces to make room for immigrants. The nonprofit had, per their account, paid for a month of housing for the veterans and the hotels removed them only part way through their stay. The New York Post article included accounts from Toney-Finch saying veterans contacted her for help, and included details on some of them, identifying one as a 24-year-old Afghanistan veteran.
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However local news outlets not only found the story of displaced veterans to be false, they found it to be intentionally fabricated across several layers, involving falsified documents, phony veterans, and a stream of steady and ongoing lies by officials.
The elaborate scheme began to unravel on Wednesday, May 17, when the Mid-Hudson News looked at some of the financials behind the housing program Toney-Finch claimed to be running to help vets. The News found that a receipt given to Maher was fabricated, according to experts interviewed by the outlet.. Three hotels told the Times-Union they never housed any veterans, nor had they dealt with the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation to house them. Mental Health America of Dutchess County, a group that provides services to veterans including aid with shelter, claimed it was told the 20 vets were put in another hotel in Dutchess County, but Toney-Finch had not shared details that would help MHA assist them.
Toney-Finch also claimed the allegedly displaced veterans were staying in Connecticut.
Efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to get contact information for the veterans were also ignored, the Times Union reported, as was outreach from other aid groups and lawmakers.
The ‘veterans’ come forward
Then came stunning interviews from the supposedly-evicted veterans themselves. A group of unhoused people — who were neither veterans nor victims of an eviction — told the Mid-Hudson News that they had been paid by a group that included Toney-Finch to pose as unhoused veterans displaced from the hotels.
Toney-Finch, the group said, actively prepped them on what to say. Two of the men who spoke to the press about it said they did not go through with the act, and were not paid despite being promised. Toney-Finch denied this account in a text to the Times-Union.
Before that hoax was uncovered, it drew heavy outrage and action. Maher, a Navy reservist, introduced legislation in the New York legislature meant to prevent hotels from evicting veterans in order to shelter immigrants. Conservative news channels Newsmax and Fox News covered the “news” over multiple segments, with hosts expressing outrage at the harm done to veterans. An attorney representing one hotel, the Crossroads Hotel, said that the staff had been receiving death threats over the allegations.
In his conversation with the Times-Union, Maher said that when he contacted Toney-Finch about discrepancies in her account and financial documents, she repeatedly claimed she was just trying to help veterans who were being displaced.
Thousands of veterans are unhoused nationwide, per the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As with unhoused people overall, they face mental health trauma, risk of addiction and danger from the elements and others without shelter or stable housing.
Reporting by The Daily Beast also found that Toney-Finch appears to have lied about her Purple Heart record. She served in the U.S. Army and deployed to Iraq twice, but her claims of receiving a Purple Heart — a claim that was brought up when she was honored by a New York state senator on May 16 — is baseless, according to the U.S. Army.
Veteran homelessness has been a major issue nationwide. Efforts to put veterans in shelter or housing generally enjoys more support than broader programs to target all unhoused Americans. Cities from across the country, including major ones such as New York, Los Angeles and Dallas have all made pledges to eradicate veteran homelessness in recent years.
However, as with homelessness overall, the issue remains the lack of available permanent housing and affordable housing. New units being built still take time, and many more people find themselves unhoused during that construction time. High rents and cuts in social services also contribute to people becoming unhoused. Even spaces building housing specifically for veterans, such as the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus, are only building a finite amount right now, which cannot address the overall number of veterans struggling with homelessness.
The New York hoax comes at a time when many veterans are facing trouble maintaining and affording housing. The nation is facing an eviction tsunami as eviction moratoriums end with many people struggling to pay rent or owed rent. The end of the COVID-19 emergency on May 11 also meant the end of rental assistance aimed at veterans, which could contribute to more people falling into homelessness. That would be a major turnaround, given that veteran homelessness fell nationwide by 11 percent during the last three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The New York state attorney general’s office is now investigating the hoax.
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