NEW YORK — Two toddlers whose parents grew up in the Houlton area before moving to New York City last year died Thursday when the radiator in the room in which they were sleeping burst and scalded them with steam.
The deaths of 1-year-old Scylee Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose occurred in a private apartment building that housed multiple homeless families, which is known as a “cluster site.”
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To ease crowding at shelters during a time of record-high homelessness in New York, the city has used cluster sites and commercial hotels for temporary housing — the use of which is now coming under fire after the toddlers’ deaths.
“Cluster sites are known to be dangerous. Hotels are extraordinarily expensive and provide limited services. These options make no sense,” Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a statement on Thursday.
The parents of the two girls, Peter and Danielle Ambrose, moved to the city last year. In an interview with the New York Times, Peter Ambrose said the family moved to find better opportunity.
On their Facebook pages, Peter Ambrose said he was working as a painter, and Danielle Ambrose indicated she worked as a security guard. An online crowd-funding campaign has quickly raised more than $10,000 and was circulated by Houlton-area friends and family of the Ambroses.
Lois Doane of Houlton said Friday she is “very close” to Danielle Ambrose, who grew up “mostly” in the Houlton area, and her family. She said Danielle Ambrose attended Houlton High School for a time before briefly attending the Carleton Project, an alternative high school.
“She met Peter right here in Houlton,” Doane said, adding that the couple married in September 2013. “Both are musicians. “They moved down to Bangor for a bit and then back here for a bit, and then they moved to New York City,” she said.
Doane said she was close to both of the toddlers but saw Ibanez more often because Ibanez was older and because Scylee had health issues.
“It is so terrible because they have already had to overcome so much as a couple,” she said. “Scylee had to undergo open heart surgery at 1 month old, and now this happens.”
The couple was hoping to find better jobs in a city such as New York City, she said, and although Peter Ambrose had not yet found a job, she said that she had heard that Danielle Ambrose had recently been licensed as a security guard.
“I am not sure if she had found work yet, but I think that things were looking up for them,” she said. “This is just such a tragedy.”
Doane said the couple is planning to return to Maine, and that Danielle Ambrose’s mother is in New York City to assist them in doing so.
Jeremy Knowles of Littleton said Friday that he grew up with Peter Ambrose while both were attending schools in Hodgdon. He also met Danielle McGuire Ambrose while he was working at the Rollerama, a rollerskating rink in Houlton.
“We spent most of our childhood together, and I believe that Peter graduated from Hodgdon High School in 1999, a year ahead of me,” he said. “I spent 10 to 15 years working at the Rollerama, and I got to know Danielle and her family when she was a customer. She was very nice.”
He said that he hung out with Peter Ambrose, a musician, “all the time.”
“He and his friends would come to my house and jam,” he said. “We would have a great time together. I only had contact with him a couple of times on Facebook after they both moved to New York.
“I can’t imagine the pain they must be feeling,” Knowles, who has two children of his own, said.
Cluster sites in New York City have come under criticism because the apartment buildings often are in poor condition with problems that raise safety issues and are rented by the city at above-market value.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed earlier this year to reduce shelter use citywide, including phasing out cluster units and hotel use after a 26-year-old homeless mother and her two children were stabbed to death at a Ramada Inn where the city had placed them for about two months.
On Thursday, de Blasio recommitted to ending the use of the controversial shelters. But he said there was no immediate indication that Wednesday’s incident was related to the building’s status as a cluster site.
The mayor said the city would need more time and resources to alleviate the homeless problem, including access to more affordable housing and funding from the state.
However, keeping families and individuals at the sites and in hotels is better than leaving them on the streets, he said.
De Blasio promised a full investigation into Wednesday’s deaths involving city police, the homeless services department and the housing department.
BDN writer Jen Lynds contributed to this report.