A hoax in mid-May claiming that homeless New York veterans were being evicted to make room for immigrants was fishy from the get-go: The region has made big strides in housing veterans, and some communities say they've solved the issue completely.
New York City and its mayor, Eric Adams, are struggling to handle an influx of asylum seekers from the Mexico border and have moved them to suburban hotels this month in areas such as Dutchess County, New York, which prompted outrage from Republicans and cable news.
But the founder of a local charity, Sharon Toney-Finch, is now under fire for claiming nearly two dozen homeless veterans were evicted to make room for the migrants. Local news reports indicated the story was fabricated, according to The Associated Press, with an alleged check to cover the veterans' stay apparently doctored and several men recruited to pretend they were kicked out of the hotel.
While the area grapples with a migrant influx -- the county declared a state of emergency last week -- veterans have been well taken care of after years of effort. Dutchess County is one of 10 communities in New York state that reported veteran homelessness had been solved.
Toney-Finch, who says she served two tours in Iraq and was wounded, later claimed to have moved the homeless veterans to a hotel in Danbury, Connecticut, to keep them safe. Connecticut, like Dutchess County, has been certified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as having solved veteran homelessness -- the first of three states in the U.S. to enjoy the distinction.
The VA has worked for more than a decade to house veterans nationally. Veteran homelessness has decreased about 55% in the U.S. since 2010, when then-President Barack Obama set a five-year goal to find permanent housing for all veterans.
Dutchess County has done even better. It is one of 10 of New York state communities certified by the VA as having matched all of their homeless veterans with shelter. Albany, Buffalo, Western New York, Long Island, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, Syracuse and Troy are the other nine.
Connecticut has managed the same goal.
"When the Department of Housing and Veterans Affairs embarked on ending veteran homelessness, our goals were (1) end chronic veteran homelessness and (2) effectively end veteran homelessness. We maintain our status thanks to ongoing efforts to manage the solutions we developed," Evonne Klein, the CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, told Military.com via email.
The nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to ending all forms of homelessness in the state, played a significant role in the original push to end veteran homelessness there.
The blowup over Toney-Finch's claims included a New York state Republican lawmaker originally floating legislation that would prohibit veterans from being displaced, calling the evictions an embarrassment, according to the AP. Now that her story has come under scrutiny, State Assemblyman Brian Maher is calling for an investigation of the claims.
Connecticut was once the site of thousands of homeless veterans -- many of whom also suffered from other conditions exacerbated by the lack of reliable shelter. The state's eventual solution depended on bringing together a network of nongovernmental organizations, state legislators, businesses and veterans service officers.
The combination of local, state and national level assistance was key to solving a complicated problem, and can also be seen in the New York communities such as Dutchess County, where veteran homelessness is a matter of chasing down individuals, rather than staring at hundreds or thousands of homeless veterans.
"We're very close to 100% housing for veterans," Catherine Osten, a Connecticut state senator, member of the Connecticut state legislature's Committee on Veterans' and Military Affairs, and a Vietnam-era veteran of the Army, said in an interview. "There's always a certain number of veterans who prefer to live outside for a variety of reasons, who I have talked with. But we are close to ensuring that all veterans who want to be in housing are in housing."
The VA is also still working on housing thousands more veterans across the country. It hopes to permanently house 38,000 homeless veterans this year, after it overshot the same goal last year by 6%.
Meanwhile, the details of the homeless veteran evictions hoax and Toney-Finch's role are still not entirely clear. But as New York City and its neighboring areas figure out how to manage asylum seekers, it's unlikely veterans will be facing any eviction threats.
-- Adrian Bonenberger, an Army veteran and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, reports for Military.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.