“Urgent changes” are needed to protect women in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, the head of the women’s legal service for the region says.

Women fleeing domestic violence in the town of about 10,000 people are being forced to choose between homelessness or staying in a dangerous situation, advocates say, due to a lack of emergency housing.

The town has just one women’s shelter and a regularly packed Aboriginal hostel, meaning some women are camping in river beds or sleeping in their cars.

Police data also shows a sharp increase in sexual assaults and domestic violence over the past year.

Chief executive of the Katherine Women’s Information and Legal Service, Siobhan Mackay says the last eight months are the worst she’s seen.

“We’ve just been seeing increases just absolutely through the roof, month-on-month now for at least the last eight months. That does feel like the worst that I’ve seen it. Women in Katherine are just so much less safe than their counterparts around the rest of the country.

Something urgently needs to change.”