Up to five families a week are being turned away from emergency housing in Whangarei, with some having to sleep in cars or on the streets, a provider says.

This time last year, Whangarei's sole emergency housing provider was able to welcome anyone desperate enough to need their services. Now, Tai Tokerau Emergency Housing Trust (TTEHT) is forced to say no to about five families a week, including three a month who end up living in cars or "sleeping rough", manager Ange Tepania said.

Things had been particularly tight in the last six months, following the closure of Te Kauhanga Nui Aa Iwi - the only other Whangarei provider - which operated two blocks of units and was forced to close due to managers' ill-health. Auckland's housing crisis was also putting pressure on TTEHT, as desperate families fled north imagining that housing would be cheaper and easier to come by.

"But when they arrive here there is nothing available and all our emergency accommodation is full," Ms Tepania said. "They have no alternative but to move on: One family of five ended up living with their elderly mother in a one bedroom apartment."

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She described emergency housing as "the last rung of the ladder" and said homelessness in Whangarei was mostly hidden.

"Many families in Whangarei are ... moving from sleep-out to campground to car."

About 40 per cent of TTEHT's clients did not fit the criteria for Housing New Zealand (HNZ) homes.

"Either because they've had bad rental history or have been evicted for various reasons - rent arrears or something like that. It also seems that the availability of Housing New Zealand homes can't keep up."

HNZ has sold 109 state homes in Northland since 2011. In that time it provided only five new dwellings, and plans to build or buy only four more in the near future. HNZ wants to provide housing more suitable to the changing demands of social housing tenants.

But Ms Tepania said TTEHT has more daily referrals and inquiries than it can handle from MSD seeking accommodation for homeless people.

The trust operates two properties in Whangarei - a seven unit complex for families with children and a four-bedroom house that could accommodate up to six solo men.

These were constantly full and the trust would like to double its capacity. TTEHT currently received no Government funding and relied on grant money. Ms Tepania hoped a Ministry of Social Development (MSD) contract was on the horizon.

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TTEHT serviced Whangarei, while Te Runanga O Whaingaroa Trust operated six units at Kaeo and Kaitaia's Waitomo Papakainga Development Society helped accommodate those with nowhere else to go in the Far North.

Ms Tepania said if people did not have suitable housing, getting them back on their feet was more or less impossible.

"Once they are housed with us, families get the support to grow in confidence and learn the skills to take small steps out of their crisis.

"It's just lack of beds that's stopping us helping them at the moment," she said.

She hoped the World Homeless Day would cause people to reflect on homelessness in their community.