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A Tale of Two Worlds Colliding between Houlton, Maine and the Bronx in NYC – “They Left for a Better Life. It Got Tragically Worse.”

December 21, 2016

A Tale of Two Worlds Colliding between Houlton, Maine and the Bronx in NYC from the New York Times  Extremes of Poverty in rural America spills onto the urban landscape.

 

A Tale of Two Worlds Colliding between Houlton, Maine and the Bronx in NYC Extreme Rural Poverty Spilling onto the Urban Landscape – How long must we turn away? Today and this evening marks the first day of Winter Solstice and the national day of mourning of those who have died who have been without a safe place to lie down and rest. One such person died this year my friend Sean Porter. We Will Remember at 5:30 on the east steps of the City and County Building of Denver. Honor them all. They died long before their life expectancy like these 180 people they all belong here.

 

They Left for a Better Life.
It Got Tragically Worse

Pete Ambrose and Danielle McGuire put Maine behind them to
start anew in New York. They wound up in an apartment for the
homeless, where their daughters were scalded by radiator steam.

HOULTON, Me. — It is a long drive from nowhere, the last stop in America before Interstate 95 hits the Canadian border, a shrinking rural town long past its heyday, where drug overdoses and poverty intrude on the northern landscape of forests and potato fields.

Two summers ago, Pete Ambrose and Danielle McGuire put Houlton behind them to start a new life in New York City. That life, however, took an unfathomably tragic turn this month when their two young daughters died after they were scalded by radiator steam in a Bronx apartment for the homeless. A funeral was held here on Tuesday, with both girls together in the pink interior of a single white coffin.

Pete and Danielle were both a little wild, both dreamers who played guitar and fantasized of a life on the edge, at times comparing themselves to the outlaw lovers Mickey and Mallory, the antihero characters in the movie “Natural Born Killers.”

The couple had had their problems in Houlton. Friends said that drugs were a constant temptation in their circle. Both had arrest records. Mr. Ambrose had fathered at least four children before marrying Ms. McGuire, friends and relatives said, and in 2011 one of the women who bore two of his children got an order of protection against him.

Photo

 
Pictures posted online showed Pete Ambrose and Danielle McGuire as enthusiastic parents.

But the birth of their first child — a girl they named Ibanez, after Ms. McGuire’s favorite brand of electric guitar — and the impending arrival of their second had the couple imagining a different life.

 
 

“They just wanted a fresh, clean slate, to start over with their family,” said Skylar Case, 25, a close friend of Ms. McGuire’s. They wanted to live in a place “where you could walk down the street with tattoos and your guitar and fit in.”

That place was New York.

On July 9, 2015, the small family showed up at the city’s homeless intake center in the Bronx. They quickly learned to work the system, reapplying multiple times for shelter before finally settling in a city-paid apartment for the homeless on Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx on Nov. 1.

Pictures and videos posted online show enthusiastic parents with happy children. There are pictures that show a young couple in love, hugging, kissing, mugging for the camera. Neighbors nicknamed the two ebullient toddlers, Ibanez and her baby sister, Scylee Vayoh, “the Disney kids.”

Yet there was constant anxiety about money, and struggles to find work. Ms. McGuire took Scylee with her when she played her guitar for tips in the subway at Grand Central Terminal, once drawing the attention of child welfare authorities. On another occasion, the police and child welfare investigators arrived at the apartment after the couple got into a loud argument.

 
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A memorial outside the apartment building on Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx where Ibanez and Scylee Ambrose were fatally scalded by steam from a radiator. CreditGregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Then, on July 7, almost a year to the day after the couple first showed up at the homeless intake center, Ms. McGuire wrote online, “Looks like things are finally looking up,” adding the hashtags #lifeisgood and #onedayatatime. She had gotten a state license to work as a security guard, she wrote, and Mr. Ambrose had worked his first job as a house painter.

Everything would change on Dec. 7. It was a “freak accident,” according to Mayor Bill de Blasio: A valve had come off a radiator in the room where the girls slept, filling the room with intense heat and steam. It was not clear how long the steam had been pouring out, or whether the girls’ cries had gone undetected. A neighbor, hearing the parents’ screams, called 911 at 12:08 p.m.

Fifteen minutes later, the girls were declared dead.

It was a horrific story that focused attention on the bizarre cause, the tragic outcome and the somewhat unusual route the family took to establish a home in Hunts Point, where the city maintained a so-called cluster site: several apartments reserved for the homeless in a private building. Apartments like the one the Ambrose family stayed in are meant to be a temporary form of shelter, but the family stayed there more than 13 months.

Growing Up in Poverty

Houlton, a town of about 6,000 residents, is the seat of Aroostook County, known as the Crown of Maine, but it is one of the poorest in the state, where one in six people live in poverty. The county has the state’s lowest median household income, just $36,066, slightly higher than the Bronx, although with a more affordable cost of living.

Crystal meth and opioid use, as in so many small towns, was rampant. Through the end of September, 12 people had died this year from drug overdoses in Aroostook County; statewide 286 people had died from overdoses through that date, already surpassing the 272 overdose deaths in all of 2015, according to the Maine attorney general’s office.

 
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Wade McGuire, Danielle’s father, in Houlton. “She could have stayed up here, she could have stayed right here with me and everything would’ve been fine. Those kids would still be with us.”CreditSarah Rice for The New York Times

Ms. McGuire’s father, Wade McGuire, 53, grew up in a farmhouse, the family so destitute that he recalls snow falling through a hole in the roof. Now he lives in a modest rented house on Spring Street, full of pictures of Jesus and of his granddaughters, with an ashtray on every table. The family, Mr. McGuire said, has been plagued by tragedy: He recited a catalog of family members and others close to him who had died young. And now Ibanez and Scylee.

His daughter, Danielle, 24, split her childhood between the homes of her parents, who never married. She went to the local high school and then transferred to a small private school, the Carlton Project.

“She always had an outgoing ‘not caring what people think’ personality,” said Ms. Case, Ms. McGuire’s friend. “She wasn’t scared to be different. Around here everyone tries to be the same.”

She loved music, playing guitar and singing, a talent she got from her father. People said she had the voice of an angel.

Mr. Ambrose, 35, is part Maliseet Indian. He bounced around a lot, living for a time on land occupied by the tribe outside town or in a trailer park nearby, or with his mother in Bangor. He made money giving people tattoos and he played guitar. He liked heavy metal music, grew dreadlocks and called himself Pete Death. He had run-ins with the law and, by his own account, struggled with addiction.

Photo

 
A picture of Danielle McGuire and her daughter Ibanez at Wade McGuire’s home in Houlton.CreditSarah Rice for The New York Times

In a Facebook post in September he wrote of methadone: “I’ve fought to get away from this FREE drug, for over a year this time and the amount of damage to my health and body FAR SURPASSES any problems health wise I suffered at the hands of my other addiction.”

The couple were married in September 2013. Across a variety of internet and social media accounts they wrote of their love and of the music they made together, including in a band called Shallow Water Rickets. They posted many photographs of themselves together, some with the names of the antihero lovers Mickey and Mallory.

Ms. McGuire kept her plans to leave secret from her father, and on the day she left Houlton, she left him a note: They had gone to start a new life. She and Ibanez boarded a bus to join her husband, who had gone ahead.

In Maine, the couple had always had places to stay, most recently at Ms. McGuire’s father’s house. But in New York, they were alone and without much money, and they appear to have gone directly to the city’s intake center for homeless families in the Bronx.

They were among the 13 percent of homeless people who list their last known address as being outside New York (though many of those — all but 3 percent — had lived in the city before), turning up in or returning to a city that is obligated by court order to give shelter to anyone who asks.

 
Photo

 
Pete Ambrose once lived on this property occupied by his Maliseet Indian tribe outside Houlton.CreditSarah Rice for The New York Times

Working the System

Mr. Ambrose already knew how the system worked: He had stayed in a New York City homeless shelter for single men from August to November 2012.

Families are typically allowed to stay in shelters for up to 10 days while employees of the city’s Department of Homeless Services investigate their cases.

When the 10 days were up for the Ambrose family, they were rejected. But as many families do, they simply reapplied and were given another 10 days of shelter. When they were rejected a second time, they applied again, according to a city official familiar with their case. This happened repeatedly for months: In all, the couple applied for shelter 10 times.

On July 23, 2015, the family moved into a shelter on 112th Street in Corona, Queens. In August 2015, Mr. Ambrose posted online a photograph of his wife in a small kitchenette apartment in the building, with the caption, “our lil pad.” It became their home for most of the next three months.

Residents there remembered the couple, with Ibanez in tow, busking in front of a McDonald’s on Roosevelt Avenue.

 
Photo

 
“Balloons for the Ambrose angels,” said Skylar Case, a friend of Danielle’s in Houlton. She put them up around town. CreditSarah Rice for The New York Times

Then, in October, the couple’s second child was born a month prematurely. In a social media post, and later in video that appeared on YouTube, Ms. McGuire said that the baby needed heart surgery.

Finally, on Oct. 31, the couple got the news they had been waiting for: A caseworker had finally spoken by phone to a relative of theirs in Maine, who corroborated their claim that they did not have a home to go back to, according to the city official. With that, the Department of Homeless Services determined they were eligible to occupy a city-paid apartment for the homeless on Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx. They moved in the next day.

Not long after moving to the Bronx, Ms. McGuire posted an online message to Pete: “I love you so much babe I really do I love our life we have built together our beautiful girls.”

But things were far from perfect. Mr. Ambrose wrote an anguished post on Facebook in August, with the hashtag #WEHATENY.

“the neighbor hood is riddled with automatic gunfire everyweekend….no joke…,” he wrote. The police, he said, “wont come to hunts point…I just saw a guy smash the teeth out of this other guy with a pistol, then fire 3 shots in the air…..no cop cars no nothing…..super loud rap music u can hear in your livingroom from across the street till 2 or 3 am…..I bought a guitar amp to hook to my computer for volume boost….Id LITTERALLY give my right arm to be back on tunk lake, painting houses…..I just don’t know how to find my way home bud….we r completely and utterly misseable…no friends no neghbors that have any common intrests and the LITTERALLY only white/Native couple In all of Hunts point……this Is what we could afford and even this Is sinking our ship…S.O.S.!”

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The Ambrose family.

Later he wrote: “Hunts Point Bronx=There Is no GOd.”

At one point over the summer, he wrote to his mother on Facebook and told her that the couple were planning to leave New York in January, suggesting in another post that they might try their luck in Italy, “if all goes well.”

A week before the radiator accident, a video posted on YouTube showed Ms. McGuire, sitting cross-legged on the ground, playing her guitar for money in the subway beneath Grand Central. Scylee, sitting in a Graco stroller in a pink coat and pants, is with her.

“I don’t get no cash assistance or food stamps from the state,” Ms. McGuire says in the video. “Child Protective Services called. They said I was endangering the welfare of my daughter, which I disagree. Because I’m playing guitar with her, like I said, in the heated subway. She’s always taken care of.”

Ms. Case said that Ms. McGuire told her that she loved busking in Grand Central because of the sheer numbers of passers-by — in an hour there she could play before more people than she might have played for back home in a lifetime.

The family was up late on the evening before the girls’ death, Mr. Ambrose said in an interview. A Twitter account used by the couple, PetenDanielleAmbrose, shows several posts that night, most related to the politically right-wing material that Mr. Ambrose frequently linked to online; the last one, posted at 2:52 a.m., was a link to a YouTube video claiming that Michelle Obama was transgender.

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Skylar Case, Danielle’s close friend in Houlton, knew why she and Pete moved to New York. “They just wanted a fresh, clean slate, to start over with their family.” CreditSarah Rice for The New York Times

Mr. Ambrose said that he and his wife were awakened at about 6 a.m. when a valve popped off the radiator in the living room, where they slept. They replaced it, he said, but did not check on the girls. Ms. McGuire later went out to run errands, her husband said, and he fell back asleep — apparently never realizing that the radiator in the adjoining room where the girls slept had also malfunctioned.

At about 11:45 a.m. Ms. McGuire returned to the apartment and soon went into the girls’ room to find them turning purple and blistering from the intense heat and scalding steam.

Anne Martinez, 47, a neighbor, recalled seeing the father carrying Ibanez, and the mother trying to give CPR to a motionless Scylee on the floor of the building’s lobby.

“All you could see in that apartment was all that steam coming out,” Ms. Martinez said. The steam was so thick, she said, “it looked like a fire.”

Police and city officials are investigating the episode but have yet to provide a detailed explanation of what occurred, other than to say that a valve came off the radiator in the girls’ room, allowing steam to escape.

 
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Houlton, a town of about 6,000, is the seat of Aroostook County, one of the poorest in Maine. Both Danielle McGuire and Pete Ambrose grew up there knowing poverty.CreditSarah Rice for The New York Times

The couple visited the apartment once more and gave away the girls’ clothes and toys to Ms. Martinez.

A Family ‘Destroyed’

On Dec. 10, a friend asked Mr. Ambrose on Facebook if the couple were O.K.

“Not ok,” Mr. Ambrose replied, adding that they were “destroyed as ppl as parents as a married couple dead babies make dead parents I found.”

To his mother he wrote: “in a second the world becomes an uncertain lonley desperate place where you cant be anymore…i have to find my baby girls. They need there daddy and i cant find them.”

The PetenDanielleAmbrose Twitter account went silent for almost a week after the girls died. Then on Dec. 13, someone posted links to several music videos. One of them was called “Alone and Dying,” a Hank Williams III song that ends, “I just can’t keep on living without you in my life.”

Back in Houlton, Danielle’s father said that he bursts into tears when he thinks about what happened to his granddaughters.

“I don’t know why they would be homeless when they could be with me,” Mr. McGuire said. “Excuse my language, I don’t know why in the hell she went down there. She could have stayed up here, she could have stayed right here with me and everything would’ve been fine. Those kids would still be with us.”

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