At a very young age, she was exposed to heavy drugs, violence and criminal activity.
"People shooting heroin -- we'd be playing as kids, and there would be needles on the ground," Carter said. "It was rough."
It wasn't long before the life Carter witnessed became her own. At 5 years old, she had her first drink. At 17, her first hit of crack cocaine.
"I didn't know then when I took that first hit that I was going to lose the next 12 years of my life," she said.
Carter cycled in and out of prison, prostitution and homelessness. Then one day she had a revelation: It was time to change.
While in prison in 1993, she was accepted into a rehabilitation program that started her on a path to overhaul her life and get clean.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights -- I felt like God was telling me: 'I didn't bring you through all of this for nothing,' " she said.
Today, Carter and her nonprofit, the Time for Change Foundation
, help homeless women reclaim their lives. The group provides housing, counseling and job training, as well as services to help women reunite with their children.
"Homeless women and children -- I call them invisible people. We pretend that we don't see them," Carter said. "But I see them. And I know there's something we can do to help them."
Since 2002, more than 800 women -- many who are formerly incarcerated -- have benefited from Carter's program.
CNN spoke to Carter about her work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
CNN: Why is it so difficult for women facing homelessness to break the cycle?
Carter: What options does a woman with nothing have to start over? You have no money. You have no ID. You have no family, no friends. And you're just out there walking the streets. A lot of times, women coming out of jail don't have a place to go. They go in homeless, and they come out homeless.
We meet women where they are—if they're in front of the Greyhound bus station, if they're downtown, if they're at the hospital. We're willing to be there at midnight to pick a woman up from prison, to bring her to a home, because we understand.
A lot of the women who work at our organization have previous histories of incarceration. So they serve as a mentor for the client coming in as well as a case manager. They are able to understand the barriers of having a felony conviction or getting out of jail with no ID and no money, and they can help women navigate that. They really work with a woman where she's at. There is no judgment. There is no looking down.
CNN: Many of the women you help have a criminal record. How does that affect their ability to move forward?
For one, it's a constant reminder of your past. But also when you apply for things like housing, employment and other social services, it can cause you to be screened out of opportunities to improve your condition.
Here in California, voters recently passed Prop 47. It allows those who qualify to file petitions to have eligible offenses removed from their record. So when they go apply for that new job or apartment, they don't have to check that box anymore. It's an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the formerly incarcerated looking to turn over a new leaf.
There is only a three-year window to take advantage of the law. So we arrange clinics for the public, where we bring them (together) with folks from the Public Defender's Office and volunteer lawyers, and we help them file their petitions on the spot.
CNN: You also run a reentry program for inmates in the same prison where you served time. What's that like?
Carter: I walked the prison halls; I walked the yard. I was in there for all the birthdays, the Christmases—missing my daughter and everything in her life. Being behind those bars, I thought that was going to be the rest of my life.
Now when I walk into that prison—not just as a free woman, but knowing that I'm a change agent and a beacon of hope—I have a sense of exhilaration. I have a sense of empowerment that's beyond anything that I could imagine. I know my life has come full circle.
I'm trusted with an ID to walk in and out of the prison at my leisure and to have an office inside, where I get to share with women that we found the way out, that we don't have to come in and out of here anymore.
CNN: You were able to reunite with your daughter after being estranged for so long. How does that feel?
Carter: I was 21 years old when I had my daughter. I was able to have her in my physical custody for six months. Through the grace of a loving God, I (got) my life turned around so that I could be there for her, to help get her on the straight and narrow. I was able to break the cycle.
The future for her is so bright. She has her master's degree. She has a great career. She recently got married, and she's doing really, really well. I'm just overexcited and proud of my baby right now. I think that's one of the fuels that helped me start Time for Change Foundation. Because I can never, ever get back those years that I lost with my daughter—but I could help make sure another mother doesn't lose time with hers.
Want to get involved? Check out the Time for Change Foundation website at www.timeforchangefoundation.org
and see how to help.