Think about it, if two or more applicants have experience, but one also has experience in the exact technology already used at the place, that person is ahead in the game.
I frankly would keep quiet about the personal situation, I think everybody understands if you do. He's not looking for charity because he's homeless, he wants a job because he's a professional developer.
The idea that you should learn modern JS and then react to apply for react jobs with no real world experience is a bad one for someone with work history in 2 languages that are in the top 10.. Particularly if they are in a rather desperate situation.
"No one is really looking for a PHP developer right now. And all the front end jobs want React/Redux experience or Angular."
So, not learning React doesn't seem like a good call unless he wants to stay in the backend. No matter what he will be learning now, he will not have "real world experience" with it. All he can do between jobs is learn. What's your advice exactly? What does "looking at how Python has progressed" even mean?
Take an existing project you wrote in python and modernize it for newer style, maybe it was in legacy 2.X for compatibility with something and needs to be updated. Maybe convert to a python framework that is popular now (there's not so much churn in python so a past framework might just be updated.)
Taking a past project and modernizing it allows you to mix discussion of real world experience with your understanding of new things. Where things are just updates you blur perception and significance of the age of your real world experiences.
But switching completely to patterns, code and development processes you have never used before even by analogy is taking that to the most tenuous extreme..
Who knows maybe the OP's past JS experience was in SPAs in a functional style using node tools and an IDE and react is almost reasonable.. But that seems unlikely if python and php were the first languages the OP thinks of.
It makes more sense to milk and refresh past connections to Python to find a new subfield than to try to stay in web development by switching to JS (if it was your 3rd language from 3 years ago) to move from Backend to frontend in the months right before almost every language will get an opportunity on the frontend..
This is not true. I think you'll find a lot of new projects being written in PHP 7.2 and/or using some newer framework, like Laravel.
There is nothing wrong with getting PHP work. PHP is not going away anytime soon, and the language has improved a lot since 5.6.
For a past python developer, trying out something like Django a bit with converting a past project would be less work than react for a js developer and probably a good refresher.
But, if Facebook actually hires react engineers everywhere and just doesn't like their own job platform, then they probably hire php engineers everywhere as php is the platform they are the most famous for sinking money into modernizing.. So again, I'm left to wonder why anyone who already knows php would be told to learn react before looking for a job.
It's a lot like always being told to learn Ruby on Rails a few years back even if you knew nothing at all about ruby. I wonder where all those ruby illiterate RoR engineers ended up.
Granted, I don't know your market, but if it's outside the typical 5-10 cities, that might be the problem.
Ok, so let's assume Facebook is hiring today and for the last 5 years in 10 job markets.
Damn hard to find a company actually using it in many markets for most of that time.