The other day, at their invitation, I met Kerry Himmel, an unemployed truck driver, and her 16-year-old daughter, Destiny, at a McDonald's on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.
For about two years, mother and daughter have been anchored in that McDonald's parking lot, living in their Ford Explorer and avoiding eviction by moving now and then to a nearby Ralphs parking lot. They favor the McDonald's, though, because there's a bathroom with an outdoor entrance.
As if that weren't miserable enough, the situation got much, much worse in April.
"Whenever I stood up, things started getting blurry for a second," said Destiny.
"You'd have to brace yourself," her mother added.
Then Destiny was hit with headaches that went from bad to excruciating. Late one night, Kerry rushed her daughter to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center emergency room in Woodland Hills, where the diagnosis was devastating.
"Destiny has high-risk acute leukemia," says Dr. Susan Storch, an oncologist and hematologist who told me there's about a 70% survival rate with an intense treatment approach that takes about 2 1/2 years.
Storch knew the Himmels were homeless, so she kept Destiny in the hospital for several weeks even though the teen wasn't a Kaiser member. Patients need rest and comfort in an environment as germ-free as possible, Storch said, and the back of an SUV doesn't fit that bill. The doctor tried to set up housing for them, but Kerry Himmel turned it down -- for reasons I'll explain later.
After her initial stint at Kaiser, Destiny started outpatient treatment at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, where Medi-Cal covers her several visits a week -- for chemotherapy, spinal taps, pain therapy and other services. Then it's back to the McDonald's and the cramped quarters of the Explorer. Kerry sleeps in the driver's seat, and Destiny, who is often exhausted and in pain, stretches out in the cargo area.
The nights lately have been frigid, but she says the body heat from her two dogs -- Rugrat and Gidget -- helps keep her warm, even though "they steal my blankets."
On the day I went to meet them, Kerry helped her daughter out of the truck and handed her a cane, and Destiny took slow, careful steps toward the restaurant so we could sit and talk. She's tall, with pale blue eyes and a sweet face that's swollen from steroid treatment.
Living in the truck, they said, is something they're used to. Kerry and Destiny have spent most of the last 10 years living in vehicles, beginning back in their home state of Michigan.
"It's the economy," said Kerry, but there's a little more to it than that.
Her family was always pretty dysfunctional, said Kerry, so she couldn't rely on help from relatives, many of whom had their own problems. And she had nothing much better to say about Destiny's father, who has long been out of the picture.
Kerry and Destiny moved west figuring job prospects would be better, and if they remained homeless, at least it would be warmer here.
I checked with Dallas Berry, the Himmels' pastor back in Michigan, and he said the Himmels had kept their homelessness a secret even from him while living in Michigan. He learned about it after they left, and also learned that Destiny "was very embarrassed" by it.
"I'm praying for them," Berry said.