His visitors are hesitant, poking their heads in more out of curiosity than excitement. The large tepee that sits in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – next to an overdose-prevention site on a lot usually used as a market for street vendors – is wrapped in Christmas lights and the twinkling colours have created an unlikely scene in a neighbourhood more often associated with grief and hardship.
“Santa’s inside,” a costumed snowman at the front gate tells passersby. The tepee, erected last spring as a multipurpose community space, has been transformed. Five sparkling artificial Christmas trees, wreaths and stockings line the edges of the circular space; a table offers hot chocolate, candy canes and sugar cookies topped with green and pink sprinkles. A portable fireplace burns off to the side.
In the middle of it all sits Santa, on an old red recliner resting on wooden pallets that offer some protection from a ground dampened from days of heavy rain. He’s got a warm face, a booming laugh and waves with both hands.
“Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas! All grinches get amnesty today,” says Santa, played by Joseph Konkin, a 59-year-old homeless street vendor.
This unlikely scene is the brainchild of Constance Barnes, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Market and a former Vancouver Park Board commissioner. Ms. Barnes had been riding her motorcycle downtown in early December when she was struck by the disparity between the city’s lively centre and muted eastside.
“I was riding down Robson Street and it was beautiful,” Ms. Barnes said. “There were lights everywhere, it was colourful and there were little kids all bundled up, holding their parents’ hands. Then I come down Hastings and it’s dark and it’s sad. I’m like, ‘Why do we do nothing?’”
Over a couple of days, Ms. Barnes and her colleagues from the street market drove around town and bought artificial Christmas trees, wreaths and lights. They solicited donations and sponsorships, securing free costume rentals, backpacks filled with food and wrapped children’s toys.
And Ms. Barnes tapped Mr. Konkin, who had been sleeping in the tepee, to play Santa.
Mr. Konkin was born in British Columbia and raised in California, a child of divorced parents who bounced around a lot. As an adult, he worked in construction, he says, until an altercation with a business partner led to an assault charge. He served time in prison and, upon his release in 2015, travelled back to B.C. to start anew.
He gravitated toward the Downtown Eastside despite not being a user of the drugs that the neighbourhood is so often associated with. Food and clothing are affordable here, he says, as are the hand tools and other hardware he buys used and flips for a small profit.
After being evicted from his last single-room occupancy hotel, Mr. Konkin camped outdoors until market operators offered to let him stay in the tepee in exchange for performing minor tasks. In recent weeks, when heavy rain battered Metro Vancouver, Mr. Konkin slept on two table tops stacked on each other to stay off the ground. An electric blanket keeps him warm.
He admits he wasn’t initially too enthusiastic about playing St. Nick.
“I didn’t come forward like, ‘Yeah, I want to be Santa,’” he said, with a laugh. “I was more like drafted. Probably because of my big, fat belly.”
He likes kids but never had any himself. He considers himself too much of a grump. He doubts that he’ll get many visits from children during his stint as St. Nick and actually kind of hopes they stay away from the Downtown Eastside.
“It stresses me, with all the young people doing the drugs [in this neighbourhood],” he said. “It’s been like an acceptable lifestyle here, and that’s what’s wrong. … Constance wants to get the place all nice for kids to be there, but as long as you have drug dealers there, it’s not going to be a safe place for kids.”
On opening night this past Friday, Mr. Konkin cheerfully donned his red suit and flowing white beard, tucking a piece of holly into his hat.
“I did my research,” he said, “and Santa’s got to be happy all the time.”
Black shoe covers designed to look like boots conceal a hole accidentally burnt into his left shoe the night before from being placed too close to a fire to dry. He sits on the red recliner – Santa’s throne – which also folds out into a single bed that he sleeps on at night.
Joseph Rufus, a peer outreach worker at Culture Saves Lives, an organization that aims to reconnect Indigenous people to their roots, stops in and accepts an offer of a photo with Santa. He sits on one armrest, a helper dressed as a reindeer perches on the other and a snowman plops down on the floor in front of them. The photo is printed as he waits. He calls the initiative “awesome.”
“This is the worst time of year for a lot of people – the holidays, not with their kids, estranged from their families, don’t have a sense of purpose, whatever it might be,” he said. “It lets people know that they matter, that they can still be in good spirits even though they’re down here.”
The grim milieu of the Downtown Eastside, hit particularly hard by Canada’s overdose crisis, can offer a profound sense of community support among grief and heartache. Mr. Rufus himself has lost his sister and father to drug overdoses this year.
The snowman pops her head off and lights a cigarette. Santa’s eyes follow a rat that scurries under a bank of portable toilets just outside the tepee.
Corey Lemieux stops in next. The 40-year-old was passing by and wondered what all the Christmas stuff was about. He takes a seat on Santa’s lap, wrapping an arm around him, and they laugh.
“There’s a lot of love in this part of the city, but people don’t always see it,” said Mr. Lemieux, the founder of Fathers for Thought, a fathers' group based in the Downtown Eastside. “If you walk around and just took two minutes to look, you would see it: People sharing socks, organizations giving out food. People who have just saved a life.”