Fuelled by the highest rate of unemployment in 13 years, the queues snaking along the pavements outside the Auckland City Mission have nothing festive about them.
"I keep saying every year it's unprecedented ... but I'm almost beyond words when I look out there," said missioner Diane Robertson. "This is nothing to celebrate."
More than 100 people were lined up on Hobson St and round a corner into a neighbouring lot yesterday, some since 5am, to receive charity - Christmas food parcels and donated gifts for children.
The majority did not want to appear in the newspaper. "Maybe if I had won something or it was something lucky," a woman said.
Ms Robertson said the mission's clients were struggling with unemployment and entitlement cuts. "They're losing options."
And the continuing recession was adding people to the queue as those on low incomes fell into the same poverty cycle as beneficiaries.
"As an agency we really try to get people off benefits and employed - make life better than it's been," Ms Robertson said. "But right now we're just alleviating poverty, because there's no place to go."
Ms Robertson said the mission expected to help about 2000 people this Christmas with food parcels, a new record.
The Quarterly Labour Force Survey in September found 175,000 unemployed people in New Zealand, up 13,000 in three months - and 12.4 per cent higher than last year. At 7.3 per cent, the unemployment rate was at a 13-year high. And the number of people employed dropped by 8000 for the quarter.
Meanwhile, welfare reforms have seen the introduction of penalties for failing to accept work. Work and Income officers were at the mission to identify those who needed help. Benefits could be paid on the spot to be available before Christmas.
A woman in the queue, who did not want to be named or photographed, said she had left her Papakura home at 4.30am to get some gifts for her children. Her sister had driven her into the city. She said this year had been particularly difficult.
"It's been hard. Really hard."
She was thankful for a bit of help to put on some kind of Christmas for her family, she said.
Another woman said it was her first time at the mission after hearing about it through a friend. Rising prices at the supermarket had been crushing, she said.
But others were at least able to talk now of Christmas plans with family, gathering siblings together and hopefully heading to the beach if the sun turned out.
The growing deprivation is part of a longer-term trend as well. Nationally, Work and Income gave out 144,000 food grants in the first full year they were recorded, 1992-93, but last year this had increased to 554,000, including 150,000 in Auckland.
100 people in early morning queue
2000 people expected to get mission help this Christmas