‘I can empathise because I’ve been there’: the mother who fled violence – and now offers her home to others in need

When she opens the door to a girl carrying nothing but a bag of clothes, Rupy Kahlon is opening the door to her younger self.

Kahlon, 52, a university worker who lives in Walsall, hosts vulnerable young adults for the YMCA as part of the youth charity’s supported lodgings scheme, which places young people with nowhere to live in households with spare rooms.

She does it because she was once one of them. In the 1990s, Kahlon and her two infant children fled from an abusive relationship. She ended up at the Haven women’s refuge in Wolverhampton. “I can empathise when people come here with only a few bags of belongings,” she says, “because I’ve been there.”

She put herself through college and then university while working nights at a chicken factory. Then, in 2018, Kahlon looked at her life. She was single. She had two spare rooms.

“I felt that I could offer something,” she says. “I thought about what happened to me all those years ago, and what it would have been like if someone had said to me, ‘We can help you get on your feet.’”

Many of the young women Kahlon hosts are estranged from their families. Others come from households where violence or drug abuse is common. Her first-ever lodger was a girl of 19. Her mum had died and her dad wasn’t around. She had been sofa-surfing for months, and was pregnant. “We used to eat together,” she says. “She talked about what she was going to do when the baby was born.”

Since then, Kahlon has hosted 15 young people. Placements have ranged from an overnight stay to eight months. One was a 17-year-old girl who had a baby and had just left an abusive relationship. “She’d been kicked out on to the streets one evening,” Kahlon says.

She was emotional when her lodger left to return to the father of her baby.

“I told her that if it didn’t work out she could always come back. The last time I spoke to her she said the father had stopped drinking, so his behaviour was much better.”

Kahlon doesn’t open her door to just anyone – there are rules. “The young person has to agree to look for work or get on an education or training programme,” she says. “And there are curfews on what time they have to be home.” In exchange, Kahlon promises to respect their privacy.

I ask about chores, and Kahlon hoots. “That is probably where it doesn’t work so great. I think I’m a bit soft. I’m a bit like how I was with my teenage children, cleaning up after them.”

She is currently hosting two young women: Priti (not her real name), 17, who fell out with the people she was staying with and had nowhere else to go, and 22-year-old Olivia.

“Rupy is incredible,” says Olivia. “We have mutual respect for each other. It’s been a massive change from the life I had; here I’m treated like an adult. I’m trying to plan for my future and am a lot more optimistic.”

Although Kahlon admits to cleaning up after some of her charges, she is at pains to emphasise that she is not a substitute mother. “The scheme is about teaching them how to cook and manage their money so they can lead independent and productive lives,” she says.

But, of course, when people are living under your roof, it’s hard not to act like a surrogate family. “A few nights a week we eat together,” says Kahlon. “For some of them it’s a family atmosphere they’ve never had before. It’s a safe, calming environment. There’s no arguing or shouting.” Olivia calls her Mama Rupy and jokes that she’ll never move out.

For her treat, Kahlon suggests a day out with Priti and Olivia to nearby Warwick Castle. They headed there on a sunny March morning with their complimentary tickets. “It’s only the second time all three of us have been out for a day together,” Kahlon says. They watched an interactive performance, which recreated gruesome moments in the castle’s history, and climbed up the tower.

Outside, they each tossed a coin into the fountain, and made a wish. (Kahlon won’t tell me what she wished for – “it won’t come true.”)

They left the house at 9am and didn’t get back until 10pm. It’s important to have these bonding experiences, says Kahlon. “I don’t want them to just think they are renting a room in Rupy’s house,” she says. “I want them to feel embedded within the family.”

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Rupy and Olivia on their visit to Warwick Castle
Rupy and Olivia on their visit to Warwick Castle. Photograph: Handout

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