The government needs to start paying a salary to caregivers at state-owned family homes if it wants to help young people in need, advocates say.
Figures from the Ministry of Social Development show in January this year 13 of its 59 houses were not operating, meaning almost 80 bedrooms were unavailable.
The family homes aim to operate as normal households for up to six children or teenagers whose own parents can't look after them.
They are run by two live-in caregivers - usually a couple - who get free rent and electricity, a vehicle and a small allowance, but no salary.
The ministry said the houses were empty for various reasons, including the need for maintenance and a lack of people to run them.
Earlier this year, RNZ reported on the number of youths being held in police cells because there was nowhere else to put them - with Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker at the time describing the figures as unacceptable.
Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said these vacant homes could go a long way to sorting that out.
"We can't put up with that any longer... the time has come to put a stake in the ground and say, this is not going to continue. And if we've got homes in the community, even more so."
But Judge Becroft said in order to fulfil their potential, the ministry would have to re-open the homes and staff them properly with professionals.