Santa Claus says he is going home emotionally exhausted as poverty-stricken children ask not for toys but basic necessities this Christmas.
Robert Fisher, 74, who has been a Santa at Auckland's Westfield WestCity in Henderson for nine years, said at least half a dozen kids a day asked him for a house because their families were sleeping in cars.
"It's worse this year than what I can remember," he said.
Fisher said some children would ask for a happier family.
"There's nothing I can do. You just try and say 'what would you like for Christmas and I'll see what I can do'. I give them a couple of chocolates."
Fisher was last week photographed with a 6-week-old baby who had undergone open-heart surgery just two days before.
"The mother wanted to get a photo in case something happened because she needed another [operation]."
He said he arrived home each night emotionally exhausted.
"It can be very emotional and I can be a bit of a sook. But once you put the suit on, you have to be Santa Claus."
The Christmas heartache comes as social services report more families than ever are desperate for basic food and housing. The Child Poverty Report, released this month, found one in six children going without basic necessities such as a bed, meal or doctor's visit.
Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has called for a child poverty plan to be written into law.
He said child poverty had at least doubled by any measure since he was a child, and that as many as 265,000 children lived in poverty, defined as
households with less than 60 per cent of the median income after housing costs.
Thousands of people are expected to eat free Christmas dinners put on at various venues around the country.
About 2500 people will attend the Auckland City Mission's Christmas dinner. Chief executive Diane Robertson said she felt saddened by the increasing number of families asking for help.
The mission had given out 3000 food parcels this December, up from 2400 last year.
Families were not coming for ham, turkey and cakes, she said, but basics such as bread, milk and baked beans.
"There's been changes in the last few years. We knew families were struggling and coming to us in emergencies, but this is chronic. I can see people are so worn down."
Christchurch City Missioner Michael Gorman said up to 100 families each day asked for help with a food parcel in December. "We get people coming into us every weekday saying they are desperate for accommodation."
Families sleeping in cars were stressed because they didn't know where to enrol their children for school next year, he said.
In Wellington, the Salvation Army was also experiencing high demand.
"The pressure on our families is huge, and housing is a big issue," Salvation Army territorial social services secretary Pam Waugh said.
Christchurch Santa Stuart Oliver said it was always sad when children asked for impossible things. Some wanted their parents back together, others wanted houses to be rebuilt. He had to remind children that he was just a toy maker.
Auckland Santa Barry Smithson said he had requests for parents to get back together or Nana to come home for Christmas.
"It's when the parents have separated or Nana has died. You get some hairy moments."