Courtney Smithers says she knows all too well how a regular upbringing can turn into a living nightmare.
The 22-year-old can’t exactly pinpoint when her household she shared with her parents, two older brothers and younger sister turned so sour, but she puts it down to her parents’ alcoholism and turbulent on-and-off relationship.
Courtney is just 22, but she has been in and out of homelessness since she was 14 – placing her among the more than 40 per cent of people who experience homelessness doing so before their 24th birthday.
It’s a startling statistic, for which Courtney is raising awareness as part of Homelessness Week.
The young Melbourne woman says conflict in her family got to the point where it was “out of control”.
She says she and her siblings were constantly forced to pick sides; the brothers ending up going with their dad, and the girls with their mother, and she says it “destroyed our family”.
Courtney says she felt bullied by her dad and she found herself refusing to return to what she described as a volatile household.
She spent nights on the streets, at friends' houses, foster homes, "anything I could get my hands on", while her parents went through a drawn-out, messy divorce.
At her worst, she fell into self-harm and was hospitalised several times.
"I was was left in a rough state choosing between the streets or going back to mum or dad and end up being hurt," she said.
But she returned home briefly when her mother became sick with cancer. Shortly before her 18th birthday, her mum lost her battle to the disease and her father moved to Queensland.
With no home, no parents and no money, Courtney says she was feeling completely abandoned.
She says it was at this point that she ended up falling in love with an abusive partner. For four years, they lived together in boarding houses and on the street.
"It took me four years to run from him, but I had nowhere to go. I tried to feel like someone loves me. I stayed thinking he can change. He never did," she said.
Today, Courtney lives in temporary youth housing, but she says she fears what's next in store for her as she needs to move out mid next year.
While things are by no means easy for Courtney, she is doing the best she can not to end up sleeping rough.
She has built up a support network around her while giving back as an advocate and mentor as part of the Council to Homeless Persons.
She is also volunteering with community radio with the dream of someday pursuing a career on the airwaves.