STEVE LOPEZ

Story of homeless mother and ill daughter brings in the mail

Bond

Kerry Himmel kisses her daughter. Readers have opened their hearts to the Himmels. Offers of help ranged from a few dollars, to food and clothing, to the use of a house. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times / December 20, 2008)

On Sunday, I reported the story of a 16-year-old girl with leukemia, living with her mother in a Ford Explorer in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant while undergoing chemotherapy. Since then, the story has taken a few twists.

For one thing, Destiny Himmel was hospitalized Sunday night for a blood transfusion, not an unusual occurrence for someone with her type of acute leukemia. On Monday, she was doing fine following the overnight treatment.

Meanwhile, hundreds of readers have responded to the tragic and strange story of the Himmels. Some of them wondered about the unemployed mother's capacity to adequately care for her daughter, whose doctors told me it's essential that she live in a warm, safe place as she endures a tough fight against cancer.

Others wondered why Kerry Himmel had turned down an offer of housing, why she wasn't honest with hospital officials about being homeless, and why Social Security and other benefits weren't adequate to pay for at least temporary housing. And if she'd worked as a truck driver for eight months (I confirmed that she did, and that her record with the company was clean), why didn't she have the money to get her daughter indoors at least for that period?

"Her mother doesn't care for herself adequately, much less her daughter. These two need to work out a different kind of living arrangement for Destiny's sake," wrote a reader named Wendy.

But the vast majority of readers stood ready to open their hearts, their checkbooks and even their homes to the Himmels. The offers ranged from a few dollars, to food and clothing, to the indefinite use of a currently unoccupied house.

On Sunday night, before the trip to the hospital, the Himmels moved into a Sunset Boulevard motel, courtesy of a reader who offered to pay for several nights of lodging. Two dozen readers and counting have offered housing of some type, and hundreds offered financial help.

"I have a rather roomy 2-story house in Sherman Oaks, close to the 405 and 101 intersections, with an extra bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor that I would be happy to have Kerry and Destiny use," wrote a reader named Lynn.

"We have two spare bedrooms they could use if that would help them out of a very bad situation," wrote Joy, of Northridge.

In the Hollywood Hills, a mother who has three kids and is pregnant with a fourth offered to take in the Himmels. She said her husband is an emergency room doctor, so he'd be able to keep an eye on Destiny.

"I should probably admit that it can be a little loud around here -- and is probably going to get worse when our new baby arrives next month," wrote Jennie. "But it's warm, clean, and there's lots of food in the fridge."

Kerry Himmel was thrilled to hear about the offers. But I told her there was more to the response than kindness and cheer.

Another reader encouraged me to call Winter Kelly, an executive with Canyon News, a chain of Westside weeklies. When I reached her, Kelly told me she had taken the Himmels into her Beverly Hills apartment in 2007 after Kerry Himmel complained of being destitute and asked for help.

Kelly said she gave Kerry Himmel a part-time job calling on advertising accounts in exchange for rent. She could also earn commissions on top of that.

But Himmel decided to leave the job and the apartment after only one month. Kelly said she was surprised by the decision, and concluded Himmel preferred being homeless to working for a living, even though she had a daughter to care for.

When I confronted Kerry Himmel on Monday morning, I reminded her she had told me she hadn't lived indoors in years. So what about that month in Beverly Hills?

"I honestly forgot about that," she said in the lobby of Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, where Destiny was being treated upstairs. She said the work didn't suit her and there was a pay dispute. She said she left the apartment because she thought Kelly was trying to come between mother and daughter.

From the beginning, I'd been sympathetic to the Himmels' plight, particularly given Destiny's illness, which was diagnosed in April 2008. But I was getting more concerned about Kerry Himmel's judgment.

"God can strike me down," the former truck driver said defiantly, insisting she has "done nothing but try to get back on my feet."

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