Making Warm Handoffs Work

A warm handoff is a transition conducted between two members of the support team in the provision of homelessness and housing services. Usually the warm handoff (and the focus of this blog) occurs between the homelessness side of the system (outreach worker, shelter staff, navigator) and the housing side of the system (case manager, aftercare worker, follow-up worker, housing support specialist). That said, there are times when the warm handoff can occur between case managers (for example, a reshuffling of the caseload means the client is moved from one case manager to a new case manager). I want to explore ways in which the warm handoff can be improved upon for maximum success in the support process.

To start, a warm handoff should occur in front of/with the service recipient. We have to see the service recipient as a partner in the process of information sharing, the discussion of supports, reinforcing what is happening in their case plan, and providing an opportunity to provide clarification and ask questions in the process. The warm handoff is not something that happens behind the scenes. It is not something that happens to the service recipient – it is something that happens with the service recipient.

All parties should prepare for the warm handoff. It is not something that happens ad hoc, and it is something that does not go well when all parties are not prepared. The sending party (outreach worker, shelter staff, etc.) should have all documentation in order in HMIS and the file completely up to date with the likes of consents to release information, assessment results, etc. The receiving party (case manager, housing support specialist, etc.) should review all documentation in HMIS and where possible the file prior to meeting with the service recipient and sending party. They should write out the questions that they feel necessary to ask to get clarification in the transfer process. The service recipient should be briefed by the sending party on why the warm handoff is occurring, when it will occur, how it will occur, and what happens during the warm handoff. The service recipient should be encouraged to think about the questions they want to ask of the receiving party and any parts of their case plan they feel is necessary to comment on in the warm handoff process.

The warm handoff generally works best when it goes as follows:

  • The sending party, in consultation with the service participant and the receiving party, schedules the warm handoff.
  • The sending party, with appropriate consents in place, shares all information regarding the service participant with the receiving party.
  • The receiving party reviews information prior to the meeting and prepares any questions of clarification they want to ask in the meeting.
  • The sending party prepares the service participant for the warm handoff meeting. This includes things like reminding them when the meeting will occur, why it is occurring, and what happens during the meeting(s).
  • The service participant has the opportunity prior to the meeting to think about questions they wish to ask of the sending or receiving party and any clarification or additional information they wish to share.
  • When the meeting date and time comes along, the sending party calls the meeting to order. They introduce the receiving party, and then outline the amount of time allocated to the meeting and again outlines the purpose of the meeting.
  • The sending party reviews a summary of the work that has occurred with the program participant, assessment results, and their understanding of the service participant’s strengths, goals and opportunities for improvement.
  • The service participant is afforded the opportunity to respond to, add or amend what the sending party has shared. The sending party is primarily responsible for responding to the service participant at this juncture.
  • The receiving party then asks any questions of clarification followed by outlining how the support process will continue with them.
  • Again, the service participant is provided the opportunity to ask questions of clarification or respond to what the receiving party has outlined.
  • The meeting concludes with the receiving party primarily responsible for further contact, guidance and support of the service participant.

The warm handoff may take more than one interaction. Depending upon the complexity of the case plan and presenting issues of the service recipient, it can be beneficial to conduct the warm handoff over a series of shorter meetings rather than trying to do the entire process all at once. In these instances, the first meeting may be a simple, short meet and greet. The second meeting may be an opportunity for the sending party to outline and review all that they know and are working on. A third meeting may be an opportunity for the service recipient to ask questions of the sending and receiving party. The fourth meeting may be when the receiving party asks their questions of clarification. Or any variation thereof.

Once the warm handoff is complete, it is necessary for there to be a clean break where supports and planning are concerned. Sometimes the outreach worker or shelter staff thinks they are being helpful by following up with the program participant from time to time once the they have moved into housing. While well intentioned, this can be confusing to the service participant and muddy the waters of the case planning and support processes.

The warm handoff should be documented. It is our recommendation that the receiving party assume responsibility for the documentation given they are now the lead with the service participant. It is important that the content of the warm handoff is documented, not just that the warm handoff occurred. This can be an important reference point if there are later glitches in the support process.

Warm handoffs are likely to be increasingly important and essential to our work as coordinated entry continues to become more robust in its evolution. I hope these suggestions help improve the process in your community, keeping the interests of the service participant at the centre of what and how we deliver the warm handoff.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.


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