Dressed in a red suit with a big white beard, there’s no mistaking it — Joe Konkin is Santa Claus.
His jolly chuckle is second to none as he stands greeting people with a hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” at the entrance to the Downtown Eastside Market.
Faces light up as visitors see him — people stop for hugs, handshakes and just to say hello.
Konkin is one of a handful of market vendors acting as festive characters over the holidays for the first Santa’s Teepee.
Hard to miss, the traditional Mukwa teepee stands about 40 feet tall at the entrance of the market, at 62 East Hastings St. It was built in June and has since helped foster community spirit and respect in the area. The teepee has served as a safe place for Downtown Eastside residents to take part in workshops and for vendors to sell goods. But now it has been transformed into a Santa’s workshop.
All ages are welcome to step inside and warm up by the fire, visit the jolly old elf, make a Christmas wish, have a photo taken and enjoy a cookie and some hot chocolate for free.
When the Courier visited last week, there was a slight panic as rain had flooded the inside of the teepee, but workers stacked more sand bags, swept out the water and had it up and running with festive cheer in no time.
The inside has been decked out with trees, lights, stockings, ornaments and wreaths. Hard work and heartfelt community donations made it all possible.
Sitting in a big red chair, Konkin certainly looks the part, but the 59-year-old isn’t your average Santa.
On top of being the Santa’s workshop, the teepee is also Konkin’s current home.
He describes his past in two words — “rough and classified.” Originally born in Castlegar, in the Kootenays, Konkin said he later moved to the United States where life became “difficult.” After a “snafu” with a neighbour, he was deported back to Canada in 2015 and wound up in jail.
When he was released, he started selling at the DTES market and began to get his life back on track. But, after a string of housing bad luck and rental evictions, he found himself homeless and tenting in a garden on East Hastings. Before long, he was moved on by police and had nowhere to go. He said he was grateful to have been given refuge at the DTES market, where the teepee has been his home since late August.
He spends his days as a vendor at the market and occasionally works as market security. He said having the opportunity to dress up as Santa was putting a spring in his step.
“It is actually improving my spirit,” Konkin said.
“I have been really despondent lately because we have been trying to pull this together and the rains came in and flooded everything out and problems have been happening.
“But no matter what devastation happens, we have been managing to adapt and keep it going.”
Konkin said he had fond memories of visiting Santa as a child himself and was happy to be able to offer the same opportunity to kids in the Downtown Eastside.
While he spoke, a little girl wandered into the teepee and cautiously looked up at him as Santa. She was sure not to stray too far from her father, but gave a little smile before deciding to run back out.
Konkin smiled and said moments like that made it all worthwhile.
“Christmas is really important for a lot of people because it breaks up the monotony of winter,” he said.
“Any amount of positivity, it is a real relief from all the seriousness — because this is a serious area with all the drug use and all the stuff that goes on.
“If I can get a little amusement going, make someone’s day or maybe even inspire them to do something, that’d be great, I’d be really happy with that.”
Having worked at the market over the past couple of years, he said he’d realized how important forgiveness was, and Christmas was the perfect time to make amends.
“We all have conflicts here, but forgiveness is really important for us to be able to function properly,” Konkin said.
“We might bang heads one day but the next day we will go about doing our business and it will be forgotten.
“If we held on to grudges, we wouldn’t have anything left.”
And, while everything may not be exactly how he might like it yet, he has high hopes for the future.
“I just appreciate being alive, I wake up in the morning and wiggle my toes and think ‘this is cool, this is good.’”