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From the Archives: ‘The Troll Family:’ L.A. homeless living under freeway overpasses

Nov. 8, 1982: Ton Kammer peers up from his bed, a mattress on dirt, beneath an overpass on the Hollywood Freeway. Behind Kammer are other mattresses with one sleeping neighbor.
Nov. 8, 1982: Ton Kammer peers up from his bed, a mattress on dirt, beneath an overpass on the Hollywood Freeway. Behind Kammer are other mattresses with one sleeping neighbor.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times)

In 1982, homeless men living under a Los Angeles freeway overpass nicknamed themselves “The Troll Family.”

In the Nov. 21, 1982, Los Angeles Times, staff writer Jerry Belcher reported:

With wry humor, they call themselves “the Troll Family,” after the mysterious, cranky creatures of Scandinavian legend that haunted out-of-the-way places.

They are part of the growing tribe of homeless men and women who dwell in the concrete caves formed by the thousand or so bridges [over] the freeways of Los Angeles. Others camp out in the thousands of acres of shrubbery along the freeway landscape.

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No one knows for certain how many of them there may be — freeway trolls come and go without signing registers.

But Norm Brinkmayer, California Department of Transportation maintenance chief for freeways in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, estimates that they may number in the hundreds. California Highway Patrol Capt. Dick Kerri says there is “a Ho Chi Minh Trail” of camps stretching from Ventura to Los Angeles.

Tom Kammer, at 29, is one of the elders of the tribe. He says he has been living under one or another of the Hollywood Freeway overpasses on and off for the last five years.

Chris Lichtsien, at 19, is a comparative newcomer to the lifestyle Kammer knows so well. He has been living under an overpass less than a mile from Kammer for the last month and a half. He has never lived this way before.

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Kammer can’t remember exactly how he drifted into the life. Lichtsien recalls vividly: When he stepped out of the bus depot in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 23, he was robbed of his $1,000 savings by two gunmen. He had no place to go until someone told him about the free lodging under the freeways.

The younger man shares his place with four or five others, the oldest in his 30s. Occasionally a couple of young women move in for a few days — 10 different women since Lichtsien has been here, a statistic celebrated by a graffito that reads: “Oh, Baby #10.”

The place is dusty, dim, cavern-like. Pale smoggy sunlight filters in from the open sides of the arching 70-foot-wide bridge. Three ancient cast-off mattresses, several tattered foam rubber cushions and [an] imitation leather couch make up the furnishing.

The mattresses, each with a frayed, aromatic blanket, are laid out just beneath the overpass arch on a narrow, flat shelf of handpicked earth.

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The beds are set back about 15 yards and are 30 feet above the freeway surface. The trolls, who usually come in to their shelter after nightfall and leave by 9 or 10 a.m., are invisible to passing motorists. But from the couch, the freeway squatters can look down and watch the cars and trucks speed by.

They also can smell and hear them. The stink of exhaust fumes is heavy. Conversation must be shouted to be heard above the roar of traffic.

The chamber’s walls are decorated with pasted-on porno pictures and spray-scrawled graffiti. One reads: “The Troll Family.” …

Nov. 8, 1982: People living under a Hollywood Freeway overpass spray-painted "The Troll Family" on a wall.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times )
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Nov. 8, 1982: Chris LIchtsien peers out from under his blanket in his living spot under the Hollywood Blvd. overpass over the Hollywood Freeway.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times )

Lichtsien’s place is larger and marginally more comfortable but less clean than Kammer’s, which is sometimes swept by winds so strong they blow his blanket away. In fact, Lichtsien’s dwelling is a spot Kammer had deserted to move into his present niche.

“I lived up there, under that other overpass when I first came here in ’78,” Kammer recalls. “Then I lived there again after I lost my last job. I’ve lived under ’em all, all these overpasses, whenever I’m out of work. I came to this place here because it’s the only one that’s uncrowded now. Only two other guys are here now. All the other bridges have tons of people under ’em now.” …

This post was originally published on May 25, 2016.

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Nov. 8, 1982: A freeway underpass resident sits on a loveseat reading the Wall Street Journal. He and fellow residents, living under Hollywood Boulevard overpass over Hollywood Freeway, carried the loveseat to the site.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times )
Nov. 8, 1982: Homeless person sleeping on mattress under Sunset Blvd. overpass above the Hollywood Freeway. He didn't want to talk to reporter and photographer.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times )

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