Citizens Advice Bureau in Whangarei is calling for literate, computer-savvy volunteers to help desperate people navigate social services online.
It said it urgently needed volunteers to help people who do not know what they are entitled to or how to find it online.
The Whangarei CAB co-ordinator Moea Armstrong said Citizens Advice used to be the agency that told people where to go to get help from government departments or councils.
These days it was doing a lot more than that because people could no longer walk into government departments and have a chat with a friendly public servant, she said.
"A lot of government departments have left town, of course, in Whangarei."
"We don't have Housing NZ for example*; Internal Affairs is pared right down and the expectation from central government is that things will be done online or through call-centres," Ms Armstrong said.
That posed real problems for people who were not literate or computer-savvy, or did not have easy access to the internet, she said.
"You can't claim your legal rights or your human rights if you don't know what they are or how to find them.
"A lot of the work we do these days is advocating for Work and Income clients, and they don't know what they are entitled to.
"Most of the time the people we see have no idea about temporary additional support, about accommodation supplement, and working people don't realise they can get that too - because we have the working poor now," she said.
Ms Armstrong said it was common in Whangarei to see clients without tenancy or employment contracts.
"It's a bit Wild West - because when there's a high homeless level and a high unemployment level, [landlords and employers] can get away with it because people need a house and they need work," she said.
People who dealt with Work and Income were often frustrated and felt they were not treated with respect, she said.
They often reported that their experience when they went to see Work and Income with a CAB advocate was very different.
"The advocate will have spoken to the person for maybe an hour to get to the root of their problems and they'll often have facts to offer that will change the outcome for that beneficiary.
"Work and Income staff don't usually have the luxury of doing an extended interview, and people miss out as a result," she said.
Moea Armstrong said people were also turning to Citizens Advice with increasingly complex needs.
'They don't see you as a human being'
One man who sought help this month and spoke to RNZ was Trevor, 65, who is homeless.
He once owned his own business, but said he had been living in his car since his friend died three months ago and her family kicked him out of their shared house.
At the time, he was suicidal, Trevor said. His health problems included a bad heart, emphysema and diverticulitis, he said.
Last Friday he had a confrontation with Work and Income after refusing to live in a run-down hostel 30 minutes out of town.
On Monday, he wrote a letter saying he could not live on superannuation alone, given Whangarei rents.
He said that had been interpreted by Work and Income as a suicide threat and he'd been picked up by police, locked in an interview room for an hour and dropped off at Whangarei hospital's mental health service.
After waiting three hours without attention, he'd left and trudged 5km back to town and his car.
"They [Work and Income] just treat me as if I'm a piece of rubbish at times," he said.
"It's because of the way I look and the fact I haven't had a shower for a while and my clothes look scruffy.
"They don't see you as a human being, I don't think."
Trevor said as an older, single man he couldn't find anywhere decent or affordable to live in Whangarei but Work and Income had shown him little respect or compassion.
He did have an appointment for the end of the month to be assessed for the social housing register, and Work and Income said it would look into Trevor's case.
Kay Read, the manager in charge of frontline staff, said Work and Income was aware of criticism that it lacked empathy and was working hard to change that, with agencies like Citizens Advice.
"We know, hand-on-heart, we can do better. And we welcome feedback from people like Moea [Armstrong] to say, 'Hey, look, this isn't working for clients we're seeing.'
"We really want to know that," she said.
Kay Read said Work and Income has boosted staff numbers in its contact centre, and authorised them to do more for clients via the website or by phone, six days a week.
That was intended to spare people the cost of a trip to the nearest office, allow more privacy, and eventually free-up office staff to spend more time with clients who did need to be seen face-to-face.
* Housing NZ does in fact still have offices in Whangarei, as well as Kaikohe and Kaitaia, however these no longer handle applications for social housing as these are now managed by Work and Income.