Cop tries to aid, not judge, prostitutes
Once down and out, West Palm detective knows life on Broadway
WEST PALM BEACH ? Not so many years ago, Sarah, her three brothers and their parents lived on the streets of West Palm Beach.
“It’s really hard to go to school when you’re homeless,” she says. “I lived in a tent. I ended up completely alone and once I was alone, I did not go to high school. I finished ninth grade.”Schooled on the streets, both in West Palm and other areas in Palm Beach County, she ended up at a shelter for teens on Broadway and somehow got her GED. She then made it to community college.
Today at 38, Sarah is back on Broadway, but this time as Detective Sarah Burgoon-Yoos.
Here, as a child of substance- abusing parents, she witnessed the thievery and prostitution and felt the distress that grips this hardscrabble, North End strip. But now she’s in a position to do something about it, with a perspective few share on street life.
Assigned to work out of the chief’s office to address community issues, Burgoon- Yoos and her squad make frequent arrests to clear the neighborhood of its street walkers, about whom residents perpetually complain. At the same time, she sees the sex workers as humans, who work the streets to pay for addictions usually spurred by years of sexual and emotional abuse.
Even in her lowest days, Burgoon-Yoos was never one of them. But with a mother who died of an overdose, and a father who didn’t straighten up until a fifth DUI, she understands what she and her crew are dealing with.
Most people don’t. They just want to know why police never seem to get rid of them.
“They don’t see them as women or as somebody’s mother, daughter or sister and that’s sad because our view of them turns almost to disgust,” Burgoon-Yoos says. “Those women out there have endured some major trauma that led to that.”
From a homeowner’s perspective, hookers and drug peddlers on street corners and in vacant houses put you on edge, make you fear for your kids’ safety and frustrate efforts at neighborhood revival.
Burgoon-Yoos and her crew arrest the same prostitutes time and again. She’s known many of the regulars for years.
“These women, when you start to talk to them and get to know them, they have tragic stories and my heart breaks for them and I want to get them off the street. But they have to want that.”
They come to the street from, well, everywhere, she says.
One who she’s known for years has a family that owns one of Wellington’s biggest horse farms.
Others come from all over the country, drawn by sunny ads for rehab facilities. Some of those facilities used to make them sign agreements that if they flunked out, they wouldn’t get wallets or phones back for two days.
” So these girls from Connecticut, Indiana and Pennsylvania and all these places, they were out without their wallet, money, ID or phone, on the streets off Broadway. It was only a matter of an hour before they were being sucked in by a local drug dealer and, to supply their habit, were becoming Broadway girls very quickly.”
Police contacted the rehabs, convincing them to drop that policy, to give the women a chance to take an airplane back home.
An undercover decoy
Early on in her police career, she returned to her old neighborhood to work undercover as a decoy prostitute. Yes, she wore short-shorts and all the rest, she said, laughing.
Once, a cousin walked by and saw her in full skimpy regalia. A worried look spread across his face. “I’m on the phone with Mom,” he said. “Are you OK?”
Now others do the decoy work. She does what she can to get the women into rehab or mental health programs. They know that after the third conviction, they face felony charges and that’s sometimes enough to get them to accept help.
Burgoon- Yoos used to hand out hand-made packages to the prostitutes ? usually simple hygiene products stuffed in old purses she got from friends and Goodwill. When she eventually teamed with West Palm’s Place of Hope, a local nonprofit, the packages improved: large plastic zip bags filled with hairbrushes, sanitary wipes, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste. They would write notes in them with words of encouragement and say “people love you and if you ever need anything just reach out.”
“I would hand them out. I’d talk to them, see if they wanted services and give them a pack and Gatorade and food. That built our relationship with them, and I’d ask what they need.
“They understand, as much as I don’t want to arrest them, it is my job to arrest them but when I do, that’s an opportunity to help them.”
‘A problem that’s not going to go away’
This past week, with the help of City Commissioner Kelly Shoaf, whose district includes Broadway, she reached out to The Lord’s Place, a nonprofit that helps the homeless in West Palm. Together, they’re hoping to assemble a program that focuses on helping the street women.
“Unless we get them stabilized, job training, housing, health care, mental health counseling, this is a problem that’s not going to go away,” Burgoon-Yoos says.
She gets close to many of the women, as their relationships on the street last for years. That can make it particularly troubling for her, when one ODs, as inevitably some will.
Fentanyl is the big killer these days. Crack cocaine also remains within easy reach. Such is the addicts’ mindset that when Burgoon-Yoos asks if they’re using, she says, ” a lot of the girls say, ‘I’m clean, I only smoke crack.'” In addition to having sex with 10 to 20 men a night ? depending on which drug they’re hooked on ? abusive boyfriends are another hazard of the trade. The women tend not to view them as pimps, though.
“They’re very quick to say, ‘he’s my boyfriend, I don’t work for anybody.’ “I know they’re being abused by the men. They are expected to supply the drugs for both of them. If they don’t, it’s a problem. Unlike the movies, it’s not a guy living in a mansion. They’re homeless together, they’re drug addicts together. It’s a very codependent, toxic relationship that keeps them both alive ?” There’s no shortage of predators. She’ll see a woman with eyes swollen nearly shut from a beating. The woman will shrug, “I got raped last night.” In their world, they justify that as just part of the lifestyle and return to the street the next day, Burgoon-Yoos says.
Clients can be anyone
In some cases, the detective knows their families, so she’ll call a father, let him know she saw his daughter, that she’s OK.
But they’re not OK. When you’re hopping into strangers’ cars ? $40 gets a John anything he wants ? you’re not safe, the detective says.
You can’t tell a good John, if that’s a thing, from a bad one, she adds.
“You would be really surprised. When I first started, I did all the undercover work, so I was the girl on the street posing as a prostitute to get picked up. I did have this, ‘oh they’re going to be in this white van and super scummy and I’ll be able to know instantly,’ mindset,” she said.
“It’s not true. They’re your neighbors, every level of people. That was probably the biggest part that shocked me.”
If there was something that saved her from the life her parents fell into, it was the knowledge that, despite their circumstances, they loved her, she said. And she and her brothers also felt that love from grandparents who took them in from time to time, she said.
Now she’s the one with kids, six in all. She has four boys and her husband, a West Palm Beach police sergeant, has two from a previous marriage. The oldest are 17, nearly the age of some of the street walkers she encounters.
She doesn’t shelter her kids
She’s open with the boys about her past. “We feel that it makes us who we are,” she said. “My children have always known their grandparents were drug abusers.”
And the kids know what her job entails.
‘I’ve never sheltered my kids from it,” she says. “My kids go to Phipps Park in the city to skate and one of the women will come up to my car and talk to me when my kids are in the park. I’m OK with that. I’m not bringing them home but I don’t shun them when I’m with my children, either.” Burgoon- Yoos says she’s “certainly a child of the area.” She and her brothers ” could easily have taken that path,” she said, “and we just chose not to.”
One of her brothers is a police detective in Palm Beach, another’s in training to be a firefighter and another works in code enforcement for the city of West Palm.
“It’s a blessing and I’m thankful every day I get to give back to the community,” she says. “It is why I care so much. I lived it.
“I was homeless. I know the looks you get when you walk into the store with no shoes on and dirty. I was hungry. The saddest thing is the lack of dignity you have when you’re in that situation and that’s awful. So I don’t judge people.”
Copyright (c) 2020 Palm Beach Post, Edition 8/23/2020